As a home builder in Hampton Roads, Helen E. Dragas has won praise for solving big problems decisively. Several years ago, she learned that a subcontractor her business hired had been using defective drywall that emitted an odor and raised concerns about wiring corrosion and health. Dragas decided to relocate people, tear out the drywall and rebuild more than 70 houses.
“She did not have to be threatened. She did not have to be taken to court,” said former Virginia Beach mayor Meyera Oberndorf. “She just immediately made it right at her own expense.”
But as rector of the University of Virginia’s governing board, Dragas has been vilified for orchestrating the removal of a president who she thought wasn’t moving fast enough to solve big problems. How Dragas handled the ouster of Teresa Sullivan — a surprise action, without a vote from the full board of visitors — confounds many who know her.
“Helen has always had the reputation of being bright. She runs a good business and is a good citizen,” said Jane Batten, a major donor to U-Va. who lives in Virginia Beach. “I’m surprised at her lapse in judgment in this matter.”
These portraits of Dragas the business leader (smart, tough and generous, admirers say) and Dragas the university leader (secretive, unilateral and divisive, according to critics) conflict so sharply that they are difficult to reconcile. The common thread may lie in a quality her allies often invoke: her resolve.
In recent days, protesters have massed on the university’s historic Lawn in front of Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda. Newspaper editorials have demanded answers. Donors have threatened to withhold funds. Faculty have called for Dragas to step down.
“I’ve never seen one person have such a negative impact on a large institution like this,” Elizabeth Friberg, a nursing professor, said at a rally in Charlottesville on Wednesday. “Maybe there were two. Maybe there were three. But she’s the face of it, and she’ll have to live with that.”
Dragas has not retreated. She issued a statement of regret Monday for missteps that contributed to the upheaval but defended the need for the board to make “important and often difficult calls.” She held her ground even as one of her board allies resigned.
On Thursday, the board set a meeting for next week to discuss whether Sullivan should be reinstated — a possibility that her supporters say she would consider if Dragas resigned.
Dragas’s term on the board ends July 1. She is eligible for reappointment and has not indicated in public any desire to leave. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) will make the call.
On Tuesday, he said of her: “From all accounts, she has been an incredibly good leader and strong participant on the board in helping to manage the university.” But the governor has not tipped his hand on whether he’ll keep Dragas.
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Dragas, 50, is president and chief executive of the Dragas Cos., a family business dating back more than 40 years that builds condominium communities and moderately priced homes.
Her father, George Dragas Jr., traveled with his family to Greece for a visit when he was a little boy and could not get home because of the onset of World War II. They were stranded in Nazi-occupied Athens with relatives, often going hungry.
“My husband’s experience in Greece definitely shaped his life, and I’m sure those values have been handed down to our children,” Helen Dragas’s mother, Grace Dragas, wrote in an e-mail. “The dire circumstances they faced gave them a steely resolve and a fighting spirit, and a real commitment to family.”
Helen Dragas grew up with the business — she started when she was 13 with a summer job there and has never worked anywhere else. She returned after graduating from U-Va. in 1984 and again after earning her master’s in business administration in Charlottesville in 1998.
She rose to head of the Dragas Cos. in 1996. Dragas is married with three children.
Development in Virginia Beach can be controversial, Mayor William D. Sessoms Jr. said. But he said Dragas is respected and well-liked in the area. “She goes in and meets with the community, works with the community and comes up with a plan the community can support. . . . She’s analytical. She thinks before she speaks.”
Over the years, Dragas has served on a number of powerful public and private boards and has donated to candidates from both parties. Records tracked by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project show that Dragas and entities related to her business have donated more than $70,000 to political campaigns since 1999, mostly to Democrats. She forged ties with Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and his successor, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine, who named her to the U-Va. board in 2008. In 2010, the board named Dragas vice rector as she turned back a challenge from another board member. In 2011, she became U-Va.’s first female rector, the year after Sullivan became its first female president.