Faculty Senate pushes back against Board of Visitors

Walt Heinecke is one of the Faculty Senate members who opposes the Board of Visitors' decision to choose its own faculty representative. Photo by Eze Amos Walt Heinecke is one of the Faculty Senate members who opposes the Board of Visitors’ decision to choose its own faculty representative. Photo by Eze Amos

By Jonathan Haynes

The University of Virginia Board of Visitors riled the Faculty Senate last June when it decided to extend the term of incumbent faculty representative Mimi Riley for another year without consulting the senate.

The faculty rep is a non-voting member who sits in on closed-door meetings and presents faculty perspectives to board members. The position was established in 2015 in the wake of the attempted ouster of then-UVA president Teresa Sullivan.

The BOV amended its rules in September 2017 to require the senate to elect its representative rather than send the immediate past chair. However, the senate’s executive council did not hold an election or establish electoral procedures—and none of the faculty interviewed knew about the rule change until Riley’s reappointment.

Rector Rusty Conner felt Riley would benefit from a second year on the BOV. “She’s been a great member and did an awful lot,” Conner says. “We recognize the position has a steep learning curve and we’re considering making it a two-year term.”

Without consulting the Faculty Senate, he appointed Riley to a second term at the BOV’s May meeting.

Meanwhile, senate members were expecting immediate past-chair Alf Weaver to take over for Riley. Weaver informed the executive council in late May that he wasn’t, and said the BOV wasn’t calling it a request, but its decision, which enraged some members of the Faculty Senate.

“A significant fraction of the executive council didn’t feel they should just accept this because then the Board of Visitors would be picking the representative,” says Kevin Lehmann. “What they were doing was in violation of state law, which says the Board of Visitors must have a faculty representative”—one elected by the Faculty Senate.

Conner says he sought counsel from his legal team, which assured him the move was legal.

Some have been more sympathetic to the BOV. “While I don’t agree with what the BOV did, the Faculty Senate didn’t do their job, which was nominate a slate of candidates in April or May—so the board had to go in and make a selection,” says Aaron Bloomfield, professor of computer science.

The BOV then proposed that for next year, the senate elect five people for board members to choose from. “We want more flexibility than just picking the former Faculty Senate chair,” says Conner, who notes that students don’t elect their representative on the board and the BOV decides who that will be.

In the first few meetings of this academic year, disputes between people who wanted to force an election and people who just wanted to craft new rules for the next year reached a fever pitch.

When the Faculty Senate convened in a narrow room beneath the Rotunda for its monthly meeting November 15, a vote was scheduled to select two of three candidates that the senate would send in hopes the BOV would select one of them to replace Riley.

But attendance was low because of inclement weather, and the senate didn’t have a quorum. Senate chair Peter Brunjes used Robert’s Rules of Order to quash a motion to vote, further angering faculty members.

For many faculty, Brunjes’ actions epitomized the concerns that sparked the controversy. “If the BOV had come to Faculty Senate and given their reasoning, I strongly suspect that it would have been approved,” Lehmann says.

Still, Conner says he has no regrets about not informing the Faculty Senate before making the decision. “The board had pretty well concluded what it wanted to do.”

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