‘So Hoos Asking?’: What Goes On in a Board of Visitors Closed Session?

April 10, 2024
closed session sign in front of meeting room

(Illustration by John DiJulio, University Communications)

It can seem dramatic in the moment.

Suddenly, after hours of discussions about routine University of Virginia matters, from building plans to fundraising progress, the Board of Visitors switches gears and goes into a closed session. People leave the room, and the livestream cuts off.

But it’s actually routine for all public bodies, from university boards to city councils. So, what exactly is a closed session and what happens in one? That’s the question “So Hoos Asking” takes on today.

Let’s start by backing up a step. According to Virginia law, meetings of public bodies, including the Board of Visitors are, as you might expect, open to the public. But there are times when discussions must be kept private, like if the board is discussing student records, considering public safety plans, or getting advice from an attorney. In fact, Virginia law outlines 54 reasons public boards might go into closed sessions.

But there are rules for closed sessions. The agenda for board meetings, including closed sessions, is determined in advance of the meeting, and any motion to enter into closed session is written by the secretary to the Board of Visitors and approved by University counsel. In the meeting, a designated member of the board makes the motion to enter into closed session to discuss certain topics, specifically citing one of the 54 exceptions. A majority of the other board members must agree. 

Once in closed session, they can’t vote for anything, and they must keep the conversation confined to the matters at hand. When the closed session is done, the members must publicly affirm they stuck to the rules.

Final Exercises 2024, Learn More
Final Exercises 2024, Learn More

Here’s a real example:

On March 1, near the end of the board’s quarterly meeting, the members voted to go into closed session because Robert Hardie – who is the rector, or board leader – asked for a briefing from University Police and Student Affairs officials about recent reports of antisemitism and Islamophobia. The briefing covered ongoing law enforcement investigations and students’ private and protected records, an update from the University counsel on additional legal matters and a discussion of appointments, promotions, salaries, resignations and retirements of academic faculty and administrators that required confidentiality. 

While much of the University’s response to the tensions that have arisen from the violence in the Middle East has been shared publicly, the March 1 closed session briefing was going to be very specific and include the details of open investigations and student accusations of harassment. When it comes to investigations and harassment complaints, the University keeps student details confidential.

Having those kinds of allegations or accusations discussed publicly would compromise the privacy rights of the students who made the charges and of those accused of wrongdoing when their cases are still being considered. A public airing could dissuade others from coming forward and could compromise ongoing investigations, making it more difficult for the University to resolve complaints.

That was one of several key items covered under closed session on March 1. And when the session was over, all the board members agreed they abided by the rules.

Have a burning question for our crack team of UVA historians, experts, students and staff to answer? Send your queries to HoosAsking@virginia.edu.

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