Virginia Tech's Burruss Hall. Courtesy of Ben Schumin.

Sometime this month, probably on a Friday afternoon (the typical day and time for gubernatorial appointments), Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s press office will probably send out a list of appointments to the governing boards of Virginia state universities.

Some will look at the list to see which supporters got rewarded with what are generally considered to be plum appointments. Some will look to see if they can discern some deeper motives in the governor’s appointments. Some will look to see if there are any controversial nominees or odd fits. I’ll be looking for something else: How much will the governor try to diversify the boards geographically?

The past two governors – Democrats Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam – have diversified board appointments in the ways that you might expect. More women. More people of color. All these are good things. But some of those appointments appear to have come at a price: a remarkable paucity of people from Southwest and Southside Virginia on the governing boards of Virginia’s four-year state universities.

In some ways, this is completely understandable. These board appointments are inherently political choices – and the state’s politics are now fractured along geographic lines, with Democrats in the east and Republicans in the west. That means Democratic governors simply don’t have that many supporters in Southwest and Southside that they need to reward – and a lot in other parts of the state.

This is the result:

Of the 14 people on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, only one is from west of the Blue Ridge – and she’s from Staunton. All the others are from the urban crescent, with one appointee from California. There is no one from Southwest and Southside. This seems the most egregious example. Yes, Virginia Tech is a statewide institution – in theory, all our state schools are, but obviously Virginia Tech operates at a different level than most. So it’s certainly appropriate – indeed, necessary – to have statewide representation on the school’s governing board. Except we don’t have statewide representation – not when two parts of the state, the two physically closest to the school – go unrepresented. Virginia Tech is a long way from its ag school roots but the complete lack of any representative actually living in rural Virginia seems worth pointing out. And don’t tell me people don’t notice: It was someone from Southwest Virginia who called this curious absence to my attention, which led me to look up the rosters of all our four-year state schools.

Let’s start with the ones in this part of the state.

(Update: I’ve heard from quite a few people who have pointed out that certain members of certain boards may live someplace now but they grew up somewhere else, typically Southwest or Southside. For instance, I’m told that two Tech board members grew up in Southside — Lunenburg County and Nottoway County, respectively. Other boards likely have similiar situations. All these are good points. For my purposes here, I have gone simply by where someone lives now.)

The University of Virginia’s College at Wise has the most regional representation of any of them. This also is a board appointed by the University of Virginia, not the governor, which might account for that regional represenation. Fifteen of its 20 appointees are from Southwest Virginia (with eight of those from Wise County and Norton). Two others are from just across the line in Tennessee, so that brings us to 17 of 20 from the immediate region. The other three are from Daleville (just outside Roanoke), Glen Allen and Newport News. Because of the school’s affiliation with the University of Virginia, one UVA board member also serves on the Wise board – she’s from Vinton. That’s 19 of 21 board members from the Roanoke Valley and points west. Is there an argument to be made that the school would have a higher statewide profile if it had more board members from other parts of the state? Just asking.

Radford University, which, like the other boards, is appointed by theg governor, also has a lot of regional representation. Out of 15 board members, three are from Roanoke and one apiece from Abingdon, Blacksburg and Salem. That’s five of 15 from the immediate area, six of 15 from the region if you include Abingdon.

By contrast, Longwood University has only one of 13 board members from Southside – Danville, to be precise (Steven Gould). Ten of its members are from the Richmond area, with two from Northern Virginia. No one from Southwest or Hampton Roads — althogh one of those Northern Virginia board members grew up in Big Stone Gap and another board member grew up in Halifax County.

What’s the right mix? I have no idea. Board members don’t get appointed on the basis of geography, but just as you’d hope that board appointments would wind up being representative of the state’s racial and gender diversity, you’d also hope that there’d be some geographical diversity, too. When Virginia Tech has no one from Southwest or Southside on its board, that seems curious. When Longwood has only one board member from Southside on its board and none from Southwest, that seems curious as well. Mind you, all these board members may be fine people, worthy people. But are there no fine and worthy people from Southwest and Southside capable of board service? Hold that thought.

The other state school in our region is Virginia Military Institute. It’s obviously different in lots of ways. Two of its 17 board members are from Roanoke – Michael Hamlar and Damon Williams – with none from farther west and none from Southside. That’s still two more than Virginia Tech has, though. Six of the 17 members are from the Richmond area.

Now let’s look at all the four-year state schools outside our region. Let’s work clockwise, geographically speaking.

The University of Virginia has 17 board members. Of those, the only one from west of Charlottesville is Elizabeth Cranwell from Vinton. There’s no one presently residing in Southside, although one – former Del. Whitt Clement – used to represent Danville. I hate to keep harping on the Tech example, but UVA has three board members from Charlottesville, while Tech has no one from Blacksburg.

James Madison University has one board member from Harrisonburg and one from Staunton – none from Southwest or Southside.

George Mason University doesn’t list the residence of its board members but from what I can tell, all appear to be from the Washington area.

Mary Washington University has no board member from farther west than Keswick in Albemarle County – so, again, no one from Southwest or Southside. For what it’s worth, it has no one from Hampton Roads, either.

Virginia Commonwealth University has only one board member from west of Richmond – Tonya Parris-Wilkins is from Bland County, so that’s definitely west. This means that VCU has more board members from Southwest Virginia than Virginia Tech does. One board member from the Richmond area – former state secretary of commerce and trade Todd Haymore – is originally from the Danville area. If we grant him a special exception, then, yes, VCU has more Southwest and Southside representation than Tech does.

Virginia State University has one board member from South Boston (Ed Owens); he’s the only one west of the urban crescent (unless you count one board member who appears to be in Memphis).

The College of William & Mary has only one board member from west of Richmond – Will Payne of Bristol. Again, that’s one more than … yeah, you know the rest.

Christopher Newport University has no board members from west of Richmond (and none from Northern Virginia). At least 10 of its 14 board members are from Hampton Roads.

Old Dominion University has no board members west of Charlottesville.

Norfolk State University has no one from west of Richmond.

So, let’s tally all that up this way. The only four-year state schools with any representation from Southside are:

Longwood University

The University of Virginia (if you count Clement, who used to live there)

Virginia Commonwealth University (if you count Haymore, same deal)

Virginia State University

If you count people actually living in Southside, then there are just two schools with board members from Southside:

Longwood University

Virginia State University

The only four-year state schools with any representation from west of the Roanoke Valley are:

The University of Virginia’s College at Wise

Radford University

Virginia Commonwealth University

The College of William & Mary

If we want to be generous and count those with board members who grew up in Southwest Virginia but no longer live there, then we can add at least one and potentially others:

Longwood University.

If we want to be generous and count the Roanoke Valley, then we can add:

The University of Virginia

Virginia Military Institute

If we want to be more strict about things, we can say that UVA Wise and Radford are deserving of some regional appointees – which means that VCU and William & Mary are the only state schools from outside the region who have any board members from west of Roanoke.

Now, should we expect someone from Southwest and Southside on every state university board? Probably not, right? I understand why Christopher Newport has a lot of Hampton Roads members and George Mason has a lot of Northern Virginia members, just as Radford and UVA Wise have a lot of board members from their immediate areas. However, when you look at this in the aggregate (at least when I look at this in the aggregate), it does seem noteworthy that so few people from this side of the state are on boards of visitors.

I see no one from Lynchburg on any of them. Is there really no one from Lynchburg worthy of service? Yes, I realize the real question is has there been anyone from Lynchburg that two previous Democratic governors were indebted enough to. Nonetheless, I still see no one from Lynchburg. And no one from Martinsville. And only one person actually living in Danville. I understand why Virginia State and Norfolk State, as historically Black schools, have a Black majorities on their governing boards. But given the Black population across Southside (from 69.7% in Emporia to 22.6% in Henry County), is there really just one person of color in all of Southside worthy of appointment to one of those boards? I find that hard to believe. We hear a lot about various kinds of deserts – food deserts, news deserts. Here’s a big appointment desert, across all of Southwest and Southside. These are state universities, so why are some parts of the state effectively excluded from their governance?

Governor Youngkin will have lots of considerations to weigh when he makes his appointments. He has donors he has to reward. He has other supporters who must be appeased. He may have certain messages he wants to send, policy-wise, and will need the right messenger for them. I understand how politics works. But he also has an opportunity to show that Southwest and Southside are part of Virginia, too.  

Amended to clarify that UVA Wise board is appointed by the University of Virginia, 8:08 a.m.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.