Behind closed doors: VCU board privately approves Rao bonus amid yearly salary increases

President Michael Rao at the September opening of Monroe Park. Photo by Jon Mirador

Fadel Allassan, News Editor 

The VCU Board of Visitors’ approval of a 14 percent bonus for President Michael Rao in a closed-door session raised questions of whether the decision conflicts with state transparency laws.

The Dec. 7 vote to give Rao — one of the highest-paid state officials — a more than $25,000 one-time bonus took place while a sign barred public entry from the meeting room, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, signaling the Board was in a closed session.

President compensation at public Virginia colleges and universities. Infographic by Ryan Rich



University Board of Visitors members are selected by the governor to act as the voting body of the university, making them subject to state laws for public entities. Vice President for University Relations Pamela Lepley said the behind-closed-door vote — which did not allow for public deliberation — was an unintended error, due to oversight.

“No one realized the door hadn’t been re-opened to signify that they were now in public session,” Lepley said. “That won’t happen again, I know that.”

Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act — which allows people to request access to government records or information — holds that any measure passed behind closed doors cannot become effective unless the body reconvenes and votes in an open session, with a few exceptions. The VCU Board of Visitors can hold a closed-door meeting to discuss matters such as marketing and purchases when public knowledge of the plans “would adversely affect the competitive position of the Authority.”

Executive Director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government Megan Rhyne said that while violations of the Freedom of Information Act can be petitioned, even the most extreme repercussions are limited to a formal warning and civil penalties.

“There’s several attorney general opinions from years back where people had challenged topics discussed in improperly called closed meetings,” Rhyne said. “The [attorney general] in all those cases said ‘Just because this was wrong doesn’t mean that the action that’s flowed from it can be undone.’”

The bonus was awarded based on Rao’s performance, Lepley said, in line with annual board procedure.

“The board sets his goals, what they expect him to accomplish in a given year,” Lepley said. “Then, like all [VCU personnel], he has a performance evaluation once a year, and from that, they determine whether to change his compensation at all. Some years they do, some years they don’t.”

Lepley said she could not go into detail about specific aspects of the performance evaluation, but performance bonuses are awarded based on how Rao met his goals on graduation rates and other factors from the last fiscal year.

Infographic by Ryan Rich



Rao’s salary has been the subject of frequent scrutiny by groups that advocate for increases in adjunct pay at the university and those who have decried tuition hikes, including last year’s almost $900 bump in tuition costs. Rao is one of the highest-paid public university presidents in the country, ranking in the top 50 based on salary. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported his 2016-2017 salary as totaling almost $700,000 — about $100,000 more than the national average.

The board also approved a base salary increase of 1.5 percent for all VCU staff and 3 percent for faculty who met evaluation goals. Lepley said Rao is donating his 1.5 percent increase to the Rao Family Scholarship Fund.

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