Leave Politics at the DoorThe governance of Virginia's colleges and universities requires steady commitment to objectives over long periods of time. Most important objectives take years to achieve, and building strong colleges and universities always takes time. Unfortunately, institutions are easier to damage than to build.
In 1996, the Governor and General Assembly reached agreement that economic development should be insulated from politics and that the state needed a long-range strategy and the staying power to make it happen. When the direction changes with each administration, little or nothing gets done. As a result, the 1996 General Assembly enacted legislation creating the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, a quasi-independent state entity whose objectives will transcend particular administrations.
If economic development is too important to subject to the vagaries of politics, so is higher education. The decentralization strongly endorsed by the Chichester Commission on the Future of Higher Education should be carried out expeditiously, and Virginia's colleges and universities should be given autonomy and responsibility for their actions.
Recognizing that institutional governing boards will play a different role as colleges and universities increase their collaborations with one another and with other social institutions, Virginia should follow several other states (Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota) in creating a non-partisan citizen's commission to review the credentials of potential board members. The commission would create a list of qualified persons from which the appointing authorities could select nominees to board vacancies. The Chichester Commission suggested that boards themselves might select some of their members. If the legal status of the boards were changed, the General Assembly might wish to participate in appointing board members.
Short of a review commission, the Governor and General Assembly might consider the creation of a non-partisan commission to recommend the qualifications necessary for appointment to higher education governing or coordinating boards. This would help to guard against excessive politicization and could prepare the way for a review panel at some time in the future.