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Visitor in Chief

New rector Rusty Conner discusses core values, the search for the next president, and the future

The candidate profile for the University of Virginia’s next president is more than a job listing. It’s a mission statement, a 10-page distillation of UVA past, present and yet to come—its history and core values, its modern challenges and its global ambitions.

As it talks about the importance of the humanities, the commitment to the undergraduate experience and the investment in research and the sciences, the statement also sweeps in the elegance of Jeffersonian architecture, the beauty of the Piedmont and the minting of citizen leaders.

Frank M. “Rusty” Conner III (Col ’78, Law ’81) Matthew Rakola

In its reverence for the institution, its fluency in the complexities of higher education, its blend of traditionalism and progressivism, its deference to diverse constituencies and, in all things, its considered use of language, the document reflects its principal author, Frank M. “Rusty” Conner III (Col ’78, Law ’81), the new rector of the University’s Board of Visitors.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe appointed Conner to the Board in June 2014. His colleagues elected him vice rector one year later, which led to his succeeding William H. Goodwin Jr. on July 1. Together they lead the search for UVA’s next president, one of the Board’s corporate responsibilities, along with guiding the University’s strategic planning, approving policy and the budget, and preserving the University’s ideals and traditions.

Conner, 60, a mergers and acquisitions attorney with Washington, D.C., powerhouse Covington & Burling, has a record of rising to leadership. He served in senior management at his two previous national firms. He chaired the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and the Virginia College Savings Plan. He serves as board counsel to the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit that operates in 65 countries promoting democratic institutions.

At UVA, Conner was the consummate scholar-athlete. He studied economics. “I took a class with Ken Elzinga, and that sort of hooked me,” he explains. Conner took his degree with high distinction and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, among other academic honors. He captained the track team, worked as an Honor adviser and lived on the Lawn. In his third year he received the Arthur P. “Pete” Gray Award for leadership, integrity and humility.

This summer, as he prepared to assume the duties of the University of Virginia’s 47th rector, continuing a line of succession that began with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, we sat down with Conner in a lower-level office of the Rotunda to discuss such things as what makes UVA unique, his approach to board management and the ongoing presidential search. What follows is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

Did your undergraduate experience influence the language in the job description for the next president?

It certainly reflected that. Why is it that people leave here and they’re so engaged and so grateful that they had the opportunity to be here?

There were three fundamental principles that Jefferson instituted when he developed the University. The first was the engagement of faculty and students, and he built the Academical Village so that that would absolutely occur naturally.

The second thing was the curriculum. The University was a remarkable experiment. It was really modeled after Jefferson’s own sort of self-teaching and self-learning, across a multitude of substantive disciplines.

The third was the self-governance piece. Quite frankly, there was no governance of the University in the early days, and then the Honor System was instituted in 1842, and [with it] that principle of trying to teach citizen leaders by giving them the opportunity to govern themselves.

Today, we define it a little bit differently as academic rigor, and honor and integrity, and self-governance and public service. Many have a different experience here, everyone does, but those are the core values that hopefully you embrace, and you live.

In the Manual of the Board of Visitors, the first item under “Powers and Duties” is the “preservation of ideals and traditions of the University.” How do you do that exactly?

The first piece, to me, is to articulate the values of the institution, not only articulate but to live those values. To me, culture is everything in an institution, and it is the role of the Board to model that culture and to articulate that culture.

The second thing is that I think our role is to support management in carrying out the missions of the University. And I think sometimes people need to understand that supporting management in the administration also means challenging them, because a great management team really does want to be challenged.

The third thing that I see as a real role for the Board is to emphasize what should be important to the University community by highlighting issues that need the attention of the Board or management.

In the presidential job description you helped define what makes UVA UVA. Is there a tension in preserving all that and also preparing the University to be a truly global university?

There’s a healthy tension, and I think you have to re-examine how you approach things every day, practically. When people hear the word “tradition,” sometimes there’s a connotation of negative things that went on in the past. When we use the word “traditions,” we really only want to preserve those that are the progressive ones and the ones that help people achieve their potential, and not the ones that were maybe necessarily born of a different era.

Overriding all of this is a pursuit of excellence. And that does mean you change. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I mean, Jefferson was probably the greatest revolutionary of this country. And so he certainly didn’t cling to the past. He was clinging to something that was better for the future.

Do you have any concerns about UVA's getting too big?

Yes. I think it dilutes the student experience. And so while we can grow in certain areas I would hate to see it be diluted by growth that’s not fully funded and fully supported and resourced. I mean, we can be a larger institution. There’s no question about that. That’s not the number one priority we have. We’ve grown a lot over the last seven years in the undergraduate world. I’d like to see us spend a little more time focused on improving that experience, because I think there has been a bit of dilution there. But that’s not totally within our control. The General Assembly certainly has a lot to do with that.

You’ve chaired a number of boards. What leadership style have you found to be most effective?

I think two things: having no agenda that’s personal in nature, but is solely for the good of the institution, and understanding that every person on the board expects transparency and truthfulness and respect. If you are able to provide that, your boards work a great deal more effectively as one group, as opposed to being at odds with one another, or breaking down into factions. People get on these boards and they want to contribute. If they feel like they’re marginalized or they’re ignored, then that creates frustration on their part and can lead to less-than-perfect behavior on the board.

How have you seen the role of president change just over the years you’ve been involved?

First of all, these are tough jobs, very demanding jobs. I would say that the oversight of higher education has become a great deal more extensive just in the last four or five years, from a compliance perspective. So you’re constantly adjusting in that apparatus. So they’re more complex. You wake up one morning and you’re on the front line of some hot-button social issue, whether it involves sexual assault or substance abuse or First Amendment issues, what have you. And you’re called upon to react very quickly, because social media today demands that you respond. And it’s a very challenging job for presidents.

But it can also be a job where they can have a huge impact, on the students, certainly, but on the community and on the state.

What do you count as President Sullivan’s major achievements?

We still have another year with Terry, and so we’re going to have more accomplishments this next year. But if you look at the standing of this University today, you consider three things. The first is, do students want to come here? You look at the last year of applications, and we had about 37,000, which was an increase of 13 or so percent. I mean, the market is telling us that people do want to come to school here.

The second thing you look at is, do [faculty] want to come here and teach and be a part of this University community? And if you look at the list of leaders in the University community that have come over the last two or three years, if you look at the extraordinary faculty that we’ve been hiring for a number of years, including some of the most gifted researchers in their fields in the country, you’ve got to say to yourself, a lot of people want to come here for a particular reason.

And then the third is, do people want to invest their money here, meaning our alumni? And if you look at contributions to the University, they have gone up significantly. Our alumni have always been very generous in giving to us, but particularly in the last several years.

If you just look at those three metrics, which I think are critical metrics, it would tell you that the health of the University is pretty extraordinary right now. We have to give Terry credit for all of that. She is the president. She’s led it. And I think she’s going to have a tremendous legacy as a result of it.

The upcoming capital campaign sounds like an enormous responsibility for the next president. How does that factor into the search?

It’s not the only responsibility. It’s a significant one. And it’s got to be centered around how we’re positioning the University for the third century, and what vision do we have that people will say, “I went to the University,” or maybe “I’ve had no connection to the University, but I believe in that vision, and I’m going to support it.” And that’s really up to the president to pull that together.

Ideally, it sounds like you want someone who is charismatic and can articulate a vision.

Right, and you need that for all purposes. You have to get your management team to buy in. You have to get the faculty to buy in. You have to have students and alumni buy in, irrespective of just raising capital. I mean, you want people to be behind this vision and believe in the University and believe that we’re here for a purpose greater than ourselves. That’s how you build forward momentum. So you need it for an awful lot of reasons apart from the capital campaign, but it certainly helps that quite a bit.

How do you foster a connectedness to what makes UVA UVA when, as the search profile notes, most of the deans and vice presidents have come here within the last three years?

Well, you hope that you’re hiring people who will come and study the culture and embrace that culture. And in almost every case, they do. And sometimes they can become an even greater proponent because they have enjoyed different cultures elsewhere. I think perhaps the person who articulates the vision for this University is someone who didn’t go here to school, but came, understood it, embraced it, and has become one of the greatest proponents of what we find this place to be, why it’s so special.

Does that weigh on the presidential search, whether somebody has that UVA tie?

Well, I think a certain consideration would be either someone who understands the University or who has the ability to understand the University. We do think we’re unique. That doesn’t mean we’re better than anybody. It just means we’re unique, in our own minds special, because it’s special to us. And you want somebody who appreciates that. And whether that’s someone who went to school here or taught here, who has family relationships here or grew up in Virginia, or someone from a totally different part of the world but has the ability to understand what’s unique about this place, that’s very important to us.

Two years from now, how will you measure whether your term as rector has been successful?

Have we selected a president that’s been embraced by the community, and is that person integrated and feeling that they’ve made the right decision, that the University community feels that we’ve made the right decision? So that’s got to be number one.

Number two—and these are just things that are before us, so you can’t ignore them—the bicentennial: Have we had a success in engaging with all of our constituencies in celebrating the history of the University, but more importantly, looking forward, and looking out the front window as opposed to the rear window.

And then the third piece is, have we gotten momentum behind the capital campaign?

So those are just the three things that are ahead of us that you can’t really avoid. But more importantly, we’re very much about the student experience here, and we want that to improve. We want that experience to be better than it is today. And if it is, then a lot of the other things that we’re dealing with will be successful as well.

S. Richard Gard the editor of Virginia Magazine.