University of Virginia Board of Visitors

The UT System Board of Regents’ increased involvement in UT affairs may be influenced by events at other universities, according to education analysts.

Controversies such as the 2011 sex abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Virginia Board of Visitors’ 2012 decisions to fire and rehire its president have shown how governing boards have both been left out of major events at universities under their purview and played a direct role in the governance of institutions. 

Richard Novak, executive director of the Ingram Center for Public Trusteeship and Governance, said the Penn State scandal made governing boards across the nation take a more cautious look at how universities release information and communicate with boards.

“It made a lot of governing boards very, very nervous,” Novak said.

In 2011, Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State assistant football coach, was indicted on 52 charges of child molestation on or near university property dating from 1994 to 2009. He was later found guilty of 45 charges and is now serving a sentence of 30 to 60 years.

Based on the findings of a grand jury indictment, several university officials resigned or were fired. Penn State’s Former President Graham Spanier, former Vice President Gary Schultz and former Athletic Director Tim Curley face charges of child endangerment, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and grand jury perjury.

A July 2012 report commissioned by the Penn State Board of Trustees and conducted by former FBI Director Louis Freeh found that Spanier, Schultz, Curley and former Head Football Coach Joe Paterno concealed evidence of Sandusky’s activities from the board.

Separate events at the University of Virginia in 2012 show an instance in which a governing board questioned the productivity of an individual institution’s administration.

In June, the university’s Board of Visitors voted to fire University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, a former UT administrator, for perceived failure to address financial challenges to academic programs at the university, after she served two years of her five-year contract.

The board later reinstated Sullivan after receiving backlash from the campus community.

Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said governing boards are becoming more active in order to respond to problems such as rising tuition and student success outcomes. He said this can sometimes result in boards overstepping as they may have at the University of Virginia.

“The key element to keep in mind is that an effective governing board is never a passive board,” Poliakoff said. “It’s not ceremonial, it’s not a group of cheerleaders, it’s a group of fiduciaries. That means an effective board is on occasion going to make people uncomfortable.”