Can UVA Rector Helen Dragas Survive? Could the UVA Mess Help Allen and Cuccinelli?

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    by Paul Goldman

    In the long term, the firing of University of Virignia President Teresa Sullivan will be seen as a seminal event in the growing debate over the future of education in the Commonwealth. Helen Dragas, the rector of UVA, and Ms. Sullivan, the ousted UVA President, apparently represent opposing schools of thought on the future of higher education and how to fund it.

    Both individuals are enormously talented. Ms. Dragas had all the financial, business and political forces defining today’s new politics at her back. Ms. Sullivan had the forces of the traditional educational community behind her, once dominant in politics but threatened today as never before.

    We see this “new” vs “old” education debate in so many different forms right now, from K-12 through the highest reaches of post-graduate education. Resource allocation on all levels of our society is undergoing a fundamental challenge. Education is not immune. But there is no way to generate short-term proof on which approach will produce better outcomes for the future.

    Thus, in the end it comes down to faith. Ms. Dragas had one belief, Ms. Sullivan another.

    SOONER OR LATER, VIRGINIA HAS TO MAKE A CHOICE.

    The toothpaste is now publicly out of the tube. It can’t not be put back. The ramifications are many. Given 2012 and 2013 being big political years in Virginia, the politics is fascinating in terms of how it affects key players.  

    HELEN DRAGAS

    A week ago, I thought Ms. Dragas had a good chance to be the state’s first female Governor. Why? She seemed an ideal candidate for Lt. Governor. And if you win that race, then you become one of the few people capable of being elected Governor four years later. Ms. Dragas had the whole package. She was a rising star in my view.

    A week ago that is.

    But she is no longer in control of her  image. This can be an image killer for someone who was essentially unknown to the press, for the media is the filter through which the public learns the “facts” in this matter.

    This may not be fair, but she is the face of the event along with Ms. Sullivan: since Ms. Sullivan is the “victim,” then the press needs a “villain.”

    Unless Ms. Dragas takes charge of her own image, she will be permanently damaged from all that is happening and likely will happen.  

    If she wants to avoid this reality, she needs to PUSH BACK HARD AND FAST.

    Indeed, her advisors had best deal with the following question: Will she be re-appointed to the UVA Board of Visitors by the Governor, as her term expires in a few weeks? Indeed, does she want to be re-appointed?

    GOVERNOR MCDONNELL

    Ms. Dragas’ term on the UVA Board expires in a few weeks. Everyone in the Commonwealth is watching to see whether McDonnell reappoints her or not. Both have a lot riding on what McDonnell decides.

    On a net, net basis: Ms. Dragas needs for the Governor to reappoint her in terms of rehabilitating her image. But in so doing, the Governor will be seen as effectively endorsing what she did. Given his silence, he seems to be “jake” with it. He claims not to have known. But yet he doesn’t seem furious as would other Governors for being left out of the loop.

    In terms of 200-proof politics, McDonnell’s safest political play would be NOT TO REAPPOINT Ms. Dragas.

    Why? He could ask her to send him a letter asking not to be reappointed. She would likely do it if the choice was either that letter or not being reappointed.

    This allows McDonnell to praise her service, her willingness to step aside to make it easier to resolve the situation, and also get a new person more loyal to him without being seen as pulling the rug out from Dragas. This is the best play for McD.

    But even with this sugar coat, it would be a devastating blow to Dragas’ image, one that could ruin her career in public service.

    She is what, mid 40’s? She still has a lot to offer. She is very talented. Should this be a hanging offense?

    GEORGE ALLEN

    Given the political realities, what is the upside for Allen in defending the firing of Ms. Sullivan?

    I don’t see it. Mr. Allen has always run best as the rebel, not as the establishment player.

    Let me cut to the chase: This is hardball time folks, a general election for the Senate with money pouring in from outside the state.

    Why should Allen care if he crosses McDonnell on Dragas? Do the math. McDonnell just got rejected by his own party on the issue of Convention vs. Primary. So he has no real support there. McDonnell needs for Romney to win the Presidency; and that seems unlikely if Romney can’t win Virginia. So McDonnell is facing big lame duck status if he can’t get a win soon.

    Thus McDonnell needs for Allen to run as strong as possible. So whatever Allen does, McDonnell can’t abandon him. Allen is a UVA alum. THEY VOTE. This is a no brainer really. Kaine appointed Dragas.

    To me, Allen taking the populist pro-Sullivan side gives him credibility with a whole group of people that is not currently for him. He loses nothing on the other side except campaign cash, which he is going to get from other sources anyway.

    If Allen is seen as opposing the kind of actions Dragas took but McDonnell reappoints her, so much the better for Allen!!

    This is politics. On a net-net basis, Allen wins a lot more by “going rogue” here.

    KEN CUCCINELLI

    This is a Father’s Day gift for Cuccinelli. He is the anti-establishment guy in the 2013 gubernatorial race; what is more establishment than the UVA Board deciding to throw out a popular female President because they feel she wasn’t pro-business enough in her thinking?

    This is the gift that keeps on giving for Cuccinelli and it doesn’t take much political smarts to make the right play.

    Cuccinelli isn’t going to get any real money from those on the UVA Board. The faculty is against him due to the climate change suit. The basic educational community is against him around VA.

    But they all support Sullivan big time.

    So for Cuccinelli, it is all upside to take the populist side of the argument. Moreover, he can set a new standard for board appointments that force Terry McAuliffe to respond.

    For a change agent like Cuccinelli, this is huge gift on education, the key issue next year in my writings now for months. He has never cared about crossing McDonnell. As AG, Cuccinelli can reap the ultimate payback and still win votes with the people. If he stays out of this, I will be amazed.

    BILL BOLLING

    He has to back McDonnell’s play.

    TIM KAINE

    He has to back Dragas.

    TERRY MCAULIFFE

    He needs to back Kaine on this.

    CONCLUSION

    Allen and Cuccinelli have the big openings on the offense. But both have stayed quiet to date. This leaves a big vacuum in my view. I am betting that Dragas changes her PR strategy. She’s her best asset. Keeping her under wraps has been a big mistake to date.