Conservative head of Virginia’s higher education council abruptly resigns for very personal ‘professional reasons’
RICHMOND, Va. — William B. Allen’s sudden departure from Virginia’s State Council of Higher Education last month mirrored his flamboyant arrival just a year earlier: both came amidst controversy and headlines.Allen, who launched his directorship by questioning Virginia’s continued financing of its two historically Black public colleges, similarly stunned university and state officials attending a routine council meeting July 20 by suddenly resigning for unspecified “professional reasons.” He repeatedly refused to disclose anything more about his departure after barely 13 months at the helm of the beleaguered college-coordinating agency, insisting instead that his job was secure and that “the only source of this decision is yours truly.”A far different picture emerged days later, however, as the council prepared for a special meeting to name his interim successor, Phyllis Palmiero, a state budget and policy expert who joined the council 11 months ago as deputy director of administration. Allen’s resignation was accepted after he voluntarily informed the council’s 11-member board that he was having an ongoing affair with a married staff member over whom he had had supervisory powers, high-ranking staff and board members confirmed.Allen, 55 and single, framed that revelation in the closed-door meeting by outlining how he had adjusted reporting lines to distance himself from the professional staffer. While there was no indication that the affair was not consensual, board members says the situation could not be ignored given Allen’s public stature as head of the 44-person agency that advises the governor and legislature on academic and budgetary matters involving Virginia’s colleges.“There was the feeling that it should not have happened and was very reckless, unbecoming, and could not be accepted,” a board member says. “It wasn’t a healthy situation for agency morale.”What’s reckless and unbecoming, Allen recently countered, is council members’ public disclosure of a personnel matter that he voluntarily brought to their attention — and did so with the understanding that issues discussed behind closed-doors are confidential. “That meeting was subject to certain personnel regulations and due process requirements,” Allen says, declining to discuss whether he will pursue the issue legally. “I’m not going to violate those rules.”But Allen, in a recent interview with Black Issues, did readily take issue with what he deemed “the unfair campaign waged against me” by council officials in “disclosing those events in such a way as to create false impressions of what transpired.”
Starting on the Wrong Foot …It was entirely his decision to resign, Allen emphasized, noting that he shared that choice with the council’s chairman well in advance of the July 20 meeting. He decided to do so, he added, in part because of his “dating” relationship with the staffer, whom he says is separated from her spouse, but also because of other unspecified career reasons.“It was my judgment that this particular relationship would bear too heavily on the functioning of an agency as small as ours,” says Allen. “There are other circumstances that affected my continuing service in the agency and professional opportunities available to me…. I resigned for the explicit reasons to avoid any conflicts of interest.”Moreover, Allen says he advised the board last December that he had mixed feelings about remaining on the council and informed them he was considering returning to Michigan State University, from which he was on unpaid leave during his stint in Virginia. It was at the Junly 20th meeting that Allen advised the council he was, indeed, returning to Michigan’s employment following a year-long sabbatical beginning this fall. That news came as a shock to some at the council, who says they were unaware he retained his faculty post at the Michigan school, where he was a dean when hired by the council last summer. Further provoking the board’s astonishment and anger, according to one member, was Allen’s refusal to acknowledge he “was wrong” in mixing his personal and professional lives while leading an already troubled organization.“He stated absolutely that he was not going to break off the relationship,” the board member says. “There was an arrogance there that rubbed people the wrong way.” Whether arrogant or bluntly assertive, Allen’s style and the needs of the state council were a poor fit from the start, higher education insiders say. Indeed, on the eve of his appointment last June, Allen made state and national headlines by questioning Virginia’s continued financial support for its two historically Black public universities — Norfolk State (NSU) and Virginia State (VSU). Allen, a conservative Black scholar and former chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, immediately pushed to quell that controversy by denouncing as inaccurate the Washington Post report in which he was quoted as saying that Virginia should examine whether “we are deliberately embracing or merely inheriting” the roles NSU and VSU play decades after Virginia integrated all 15 of its public four-year colleges.But Allen’s ballistic-like entry on the Virginia scene immediately made him suspect. That was even more the case since his appointment followed the ouster of longtime and nationally renown director Gordon K. Davies, who was fired in 1977 by the gubernatorial-appointed council’s new Republican majority.
… And Unable to Alter the PerceptionAllen vigorously fought to prove himself, winning kudos for long hours traveling across the state to meet with college officials, who readily acknowledged his brilliance but found him politically naive and prone to preachiness. Moreover, his curious combination of formality and flamboyance — symbolized in his signature Birkenstock shoes — never meshed well with Virginia’s staid and slow-moving ways.Nowhere was that more visible than at the General Assembly, where legislators say Allen was an all-too-rare visitor who never caught on to the backroom ways of negotiation and compromise. “He found himself in a difficult position,” says Del. Alan A. Diamonstein, a Newport News Democrat who heads the higher education panel of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. “He came in with a lack of understanding of how Virginia operated and the relationship that should be developed between the legislature, the governor’s office, and the state council.” Allen’s failure to build strong lobbying relations came to a head late this spring when some of the General Assembly’s most powerful members — Democrats and Republicans alike — debuked his plan to turn the colleges’ budget process upside down by making the schools’ state allocations totally dependent on their faculty members’ performance and the academic and future job success of their students.Legislators have since declared the council’s performance-based funding scheme dead-on-arrival. But the council nonetheless has vowed to use it as the basis for its forthcoming 2000-02 budget recommendations, which some say may simply be ignored.Allen disagrees that the college financing proposal is dead, maintaining that something encompassing its central features may become part of the recommendations due late this fall from Gov. Jim Gilmore’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education.So, too, Allen insists, will his legacy continue through his rapid-paced efforts revamping the council’s approval process for new college majors and in his authorship of a 10-year plan setting forth a future direction for Virginia’s public and private colleges.“I’ve gone at such an incredible head of steam that I’ve accomplished two to three years of work in one year,” Allen says. “I think you’ll see many fruit from the past year’s initiatives ripening for years to come.”College and state leaders aren’t so sure the education agency will so quickly prosper. “The state council has not rebuilt the confidence the legislature always had in it,” says Diamonstein. “Now, with the selection of another [permanent] director, we start over again.”
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