Opinion: New U.Va. rector steps into high-profile crucible

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James B. Murray ended two eventful years as rector of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors on Thursday and handed the gavel (maybe there’s a secret handshake, who knows) to the new rector, Richmond attorney Whitt Clement.

Bonne chance, Whitt.

I have known both of these men for decades and would happily admit to a bias in their favor.

Clement might have found his way to the governor’s mansion had he not been tripped up on his way to the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 2001.

After 14 years in the House of Delegates, Clement would have been a splendid governor, but the same set of people skills — sharp, intuitive, empathetic — that would have served him in that high position will arm him in this new one.

Being “rector” — chair of the governing board, essentially — looms these days as a post of commanding perplexity and challenge but was ever tricky. Murray was once the highly regarded rector of the College of William and Mary until Republican Gov. George Allen took office in 1994 and then declined to reappoint him.

Which helps make a key point about college and university oversight in Virginia: This is the way it works. The governor pretty much rules on who sits on these boards.

I say, “pretty much,” because while the General Assembly may arrest an appointment, it historically exercises this privilege with discretion and restraint. The sitting governor’s preferences are, in the main, respected.

So, as I say, the governor rules — and does so in a manner not unlike an American president rules ambassadorships and occasionally with the same confounding outcomes. By quirk of chance, I’ve known four different U.S. ambassadors to France and I think only one of them, more or less, knew how to speak French.

They got the job, not on the basis of their intimacy with the French culture and its people, but more on their intimacy with the person making the appointment.

Virginia captures this same dynamic in the competition to serve on major state boards of higher education. It is acute, at times, depending on the school. Meanwhile, the skills required to serve successfully, to navigate without fomenting disaster, have become more varied and compelling.

Once upon a time, Virginia’s schools primarily functioned on a practical level, providing sufficient enlightenment, skills and connections to get a life and career going. That still remains (I promise myself) the primary justification for their institutional existence, but these are the times when heads get scratched.

Disputations previously centered on costs. That’s still an object of great interest, but hardly the only one. As American society cleaves, it seems, higher education has cleverly sought to exacerbate matters with a manic thrust to right the world by leaping left.

Or further left, as the case may be.

Which locates the board members — the official, functional interface between the commonwealth and its academic institutions in pestiferous seats, discommodious even. (When does the fun stuff start, they wonder.)

More and more, these boards are being asked to justify and defend campuses blossoming with politics more fervent than farsighted, more righteous than reasonable.

What makes a good rector, I asked the Taylor Reveley, who retired in 2018 after 10 years as president of William & Mary?

“A close colleague, an advisor, an ally,” he said.

The ally part works both ways, he added. The president must be an ally to the rector, as well. No surprises in the mix. No lack of candor. No dearth of mutual confidence will do.

You have to be an able advocate for both institution and its president, to be buffer and booster.

Finally, says the elegant and often droll Reveley, “they also have to have judgment and constancy and guts and be ready do the work” — who mentions he was exceptionally fortunate in the rectors who came his way.

Providence helps, no question. The job sometimes defines itself as reality enters the door. Murray contended with COVID-driven virtual governance and a “woke” campus. He became vaccine-obsessed, while surely wishing of political inoculations.

There could not have been a better person to handle it, in my judgement. The sports program did supremely well, too, during his tenure, Murray points out. Look at what their baseball team did to Old Dominion.

But if you really want to appreciate Murray’s contribution, closely examine the money management. It’s astounding.

Fall brings classes back in person and, for Whitt Clement, amend that bonne chance for bon courage.

After writing editorials for the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s, Gordon C. Morse wrote speeches for Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, then spent nearly three decades working on behalf of corporate and philanthropic organizations, including PepsiCo, CSX, Tribune Co., the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Dominion Energy. His email address is gordonmorse@msn.com.

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