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

A few weeks ago, I pointed out how Southwest and Southside Virginia are underrepresented – or sometimes not represented at all – on some state boards and commissions.

There’s an understandable reason for this: We’ve just had two Democratic governors in a row. These appointments are inherently political, and Southwest and Southside are two parts of the state where Democrats have been weak. Those governors have simply had more people to reward elsewhere. 

Now comes a Republican governor who owes his election to increased turnout – and overwhelming margins – in rural Virginia. 

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has now made his first appointments to some boards of visitors – the governing boards of state colleges and universities – so let’s see how he’s done on geographical diversity, shall we?

Virginia Tech

My marquee example was the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, which at the time had no members living in Southwest or Southside (although two members living elsewhere did grow up in Lunenburg and Nottoway counties). The westernmost member on the board was from Staunton. Youngkin made four appointments, reappointing a Richmond-area member who grew up in Lunenburg (vice rector Edward Baine) and naming three others, from Blacksburg, Virginia Beach and Sunapee, New Hampshire (the CEO of the Boeing Co., which recently announced it’s moving its headquarters to Northern Virginia and establishing a partnership with Tech at its Innovation Campus there). The Blacksburg appointee is Sandy Cupp Davis, retired owner of BCR Real Estate and Property Management.

We can have a lively argument over whether Blacksburg is or isn’t part of Southwest Virginia but Blacksburg is very much the home of Virginia Tech, so the Tech board now has a representative from its home area. You can score all this from home but Youngkin did diversify the Tech board geographically through at least one of his four appointments.

University of Virginia

I showed earlier that of the school’s 17 board members, there was only one from west of Charlottesville: Elizabeth Cranwell of Vinton. She remains (her term isn’t up yet). So does Whitt Clement, the school’s rector, who lives in the Richmond area but grew up in Danville and once represented the city in the General Assembly. Of Youngkin’s four appointments, one is Amanda Pillion, an Abingdon audiologist and member of the Abingdon Town Council (and wife of state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County). Her appointment clearly fills a big geographical hole on Virginia’s board. If you’re counting, and I am, that means Virginia now has more board members from the Roanoke Valley and west (two) than Virginia Tech does (one).

Of note: The UVa board appoints board members for the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

Virginia Military Institute

Two of VMI’s board members are from Roanoke (Michael Hamlar and Damon Williams) but none are from farther west or from Southside. That hasn’t changed. The terms of those two board members haven’t expired yet. Of Youngkin’s four appointments, two are from the Richmond area, one from Northern Virginia and one from Florida. The Washington Post points out that one of those Richmond appointees had been on the board previously but resigned before the board voted to remove the statue of Stonewall Jackson.

College of William & Mary

The school had a board member from Bristol (Will Payne) but his term was up. He was the only board member from west of Richmond. Now there are none. Youngkin’s four appointees were from Alexandria, McLean, Newport News and Toano.

Those four schools obviously have statewide (if not national) profiles, so Youngkin geographically diversified two of them with just two appointments. Now we move onto schools that, rightly or wrongly, don’t have the same kind of profile (although their admissions directors may beg to differ).

The two of most regional concern to us are Radford University and Longwood University.

Radford University

When I wrote my original column, Radford had three of 15 board members 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. Youngkin’s appointments increase that number to seven. One Roanoke member wasn’t reappointed, but Youngkin’s four new members include Jeanne Armentout of Fincastle, a Carilion Clinic executive, and lawyer James Turk of Blacksburg (in addition to members from Manassas and Mount Jackson).

Longwood University

Longwood University had only one of 13 board members from Southside – Danville, to be precise (Steven Gould) — although one Northern Virginia board member grew up in Big Stone Gap and another board member grew up in Halifax County. The Big Stone Gap-to-Alexandria board member (Pia Trigiani) saw her term expire. Of Youngkin’s three appointees, two are from the Richmond area and one – Judith Lynch – is from Christiansburg, a legislative aide to Del. Jason Ballard, R-Giles County. If you go strictly by current residence (which is the simplest way to do this accounting since it’s difficult to know where people grew up), this counts as more geographical diversity.

Now let’s look at the others.

Christopher Newport University

The Newport News school had no board members from west of Richmond. Youngkin changed that – with an appointee from Round Round, Texas. His other three members are from the Richmond area and Hampton Roads.

George Mason University

When I wrote my original column, all of George Mason University’s board members came from the Northern Virginia/D.C. area. They still do. Youngkin’s four appointees are all from Northern Virginia.

James Madison University

My alma mater had no board members from Southwest or Southside. It still doesn’t. Younkin’s five appointees include three from the Shenandoah Valley (Bridgewater, Harrisonburg and Staunton), one from Chesapeake and one from Fairfax County. Staunton is as far west as the board goes.

Norfolk State University

The school had no one on its board from west of Richmond. Still doesn’t. Of Youngkin’s six appointees, five are from Hampton Roads, one from Northern Virginia.

Old Dominion University

The Norfolk school had no board members west of Charlottesville. Still doesn’t. Youngkin appointed five members – four from Hampton Roads, one from Charlottesville.

University of Mary Washington

The Fredericksburg school had 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. Still doesn’t, depending on how you count Youngkin’s four appointees. Two are from the Richmond area and two are from Fredericksburg, although one is Terrie Suit, who used to be a state legislator from Virginia Beach.

Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU had one board member from west of Richmond – Tonya Parris-Wilkins is from Bland County – although one Richmond-area member, Todd Haymore, grew up in the Danville area. They remain, but Youngkin’s appointees don’t change the geography much. Two are from the Richmond area, one is from Alexandria and one is from Atlanta.

Virginia State University

The school’s westernmost members had been Ed Owens of South Boston and another from Memphis. Youngkin appointed six board members, including Bob Denton of Blacksburg, so that definitely counts as geographical diversity. Denton is the retired director of the School of Communication at Virginia Tech. Some of you may know him as “Dr. Bob” from his various appearances on television. He becomes one of the few white members on the board of that historically Black school. Of note: The state’s two land grant universities now have the same number of board members from Blacksburg.

It’s probably not fair – in fact, I’m certain it’s not – to look at all these appointments equally. While we can make a theoretical argument that all state schools should have statewide representation on their boards, that’s not how the real world works. All of Youngkin’s appointees to the George Mason board came from Northern Virginia but I don’t know too many people in Southwest and Southside who are going to get worked up over that.

The reality is that Youngkin did improve upon the previous lack of geographical diversity on some key boards – Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, most notably. Perhaps with more appointments to make in upcoming years, he will do more to achieve some semblance of geographical balance.

I do notice this: After two years of Democratic appointments, there was no one from Lynchburg on any state college board. After Youngkin’s first round of appointments, there still isn’t. We also didn’t see any board appointments from Southside – so no one from Danville, Martinsville, etc. I fully understand why the weight of appointments goes to the urban crescent – that’s where the population is, and that’s where the big donors are. I point out these imbalances so that Youngkin may rectify them in future appointments. We’re still waiting, for instance, on the governor’s appointees to the community college board.

Finally, I’ll point out two other education-related boards.

The State Council for Higher Education in Virginia previously had no members from farther west than Charlottesville. Youngkin made three appointments: one from Hampton, one from Alexandria and one from Port Republic in Rockingham County. That means the board still has no one from Southwest or Southside but does now have at least two members from outside the urban crescent, whereas before it just had one.

Then there’s the Board of Education. Some of Youngkin’s appointees to this board have drawn much scrutiny. One is Grace Creasy of Goochland County, the executive director of the Virginia Council for Private Education, so here’s a private school executive now on a board in charge of public schools. Another is Bill Hanson of Fairfax County, CEO of a nonprofit that promotes charter schools. Still a third is Suparna Dutta of Fairfax County, a critic of the controversial admissions practices at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia. The Virginia Mercury writes that he alone “is likely to deepen already bitter partisan debate over Virginia’s public education system.” Those are certainly interesting appointments, to say the least, although the racial composition of the Thomas Jefferson school seems a pretty distant concern to Southwest Virginia, where some counties are 98% white. I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of the debate over charter schools, either, but that’s also always seemed a suburban issue to me – the distances involved in getting to some schools in Southwest Virginia are so great that the concept of “school choice” seems pretty irrelevant in some places.

What I haven’t seen any discussion of, though, is one of Youngkin’s other appointments: former Salem superintendent Alan Seibert, who now works for the Roanoke school system. For my geographical census here, Seibert’s appointment gives the board more geographical diversity. With Pamela Davis-Vaught, a public school principal from Bristol, that means there are now two of nine board members from this part of the state. And while I don’t pretend to know Seibert’s views, I can testify that the school system he led in Salem was regarded as one of the best around. Sometimes people in Salem talk about “the Salem Way” of doing things – which seems to be that if the city’s going to do something, it’s going to do it well. Historically, that’s especially applied to the city’s public school system. In Salem, the quality of the public school system is clearly a top priority. I’d like to think that the Board of Education will benefit from a little of the Salem Way.

Dwayne Yancey

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