News & Features » News and Features

Dr. Bob's Prognosis

How university politics claimed the career of VCU's Bob Holsworth,
the city's premier political pundit.



In the early 1990s, with Virginia Commonwealth University in the early stages of shedding its community-college-on-steroids image, Bob Holsworth's political science classes were the epitome of the collegiate experience. The “it” class for political-science majors and journalism students was a roving, open forum on current political ideology that Holsworth co-taught with Washington Post reporter Don Baker. They'd subject a parade of ranking public officials to pandering student questions and Baker's uncomfortable probing (one week: Dickie Cranwell, ranking Democrat in the House of Delegates; another week: Lt. Gov. Don Beyer, gubernatorial hopeful).

This was a time of upheaval in the statehouse. The Democrats were barely holding onto power and soon-to-be Gov. George Allen, who would later famously promise to knock the Democrats' “soft teeth” down their “whiny throats,” was preparing to usher in an era of cowboy-booted Republican dominance. (Allen, naturally, also made his obligatory classroom appearance.)
Holsworth, most recently dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, spent much of the last 15 years rising through the administrative ranks, earning a seat alongside VCU President Eugene P. Trani and gaining the ear of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

But his reputation is in tatters in the wake of the Rodney Monroe degree scandal that rocked the university this summer. Holsworth, who will continue to teach political science and has retained his full salary, resigned as dean out of frustration with the internal investigation into Monroe's rule-breaking degree.

In the fallout, a professor known for deft political analysis in the classroom and sharp punditry, which started in earnest on the back pages of Style Weekly in the late 1980s, has been all but forgotten.

Holsworth maintains his innocence in the Monroe scandal, and to date no details have emerged publicly that directly implicate him. Holsworth has acknowledged only that he asked S. Jon Steingass, dean of the University College, to meet with Monroe's adviser to discuss his degree requirements. The board of visitor's investigation implies there's more to the story. Holsworth and Steingass were informed that if they didn't resign from their respective posts they would be removed, according to the university's report on the internal investigation released two weeks ago. 
No matter what really happened, one thing's for certain: Holsworth's relationship with Wilder and Trani has, in the eyes of the public, already implicated him. When news broke of Holsworth's alleged involvement, some began to wonder how such a thoughtful political prognosticator could have gotten caught up in the scandal.

“Bob is a smart guy. I'm really dumbfounded that Bob would seemingly go along with that decision,” says political science professor Nelson Wikstrom, who has worked with Holsworth since he arrived in 1978. “I can't think of any other instance where Bob put himself so far out on a limb.”

Anonymous e-mails sent to local news media and the university's rector pegged Trani, Wilder and Holsworth among the chief culprits who applied pressure to see that Monroe, having taken only six credits at the school, be awarded a degree. Trani has since announced his retirement; Wilder isn't running for re-election; and Monroe, the former police chief, has already moved on to bigger and better things as chief of police in Charlotte, N.C. The real casualty in this tumultuous summer, some say, is the man left behind at the peak of his career: Holsworth.

“He has a firm standing in the political science profession. He's put 20 years in this place trying to build it. He's done far more than I've done,” colleague Wikstrom says. “Without this incident, he could have possibly become president of VCU, and that possibility has withered away. … The tragic figure in all of this is Bob Holsworth.”

His decision to pursue a “decidedly administrative career,” as Wikstrom puts it, may have been his ultimate undoing. It's not that he wasn't an effective administrator — by most accounts faculty members widely respect, if not revere him. His downfall, one former colleague says, is rooted in his decision to forge a close relationship with Wilder and enter the realm of Richmond power brokers.

“Power just swooped him off his feet,” the colleague says. “[Holsworth] was very even-handed and was an excellent analyst. He has a very quick, nimble mind. He has a very good head on his shoulders, but something else happened and it didn't have anything to do with intelligence — it had everything to do with ego.”

In the early '90s, Holsworth was a rising media star, penning opinion editorials for Style Weekly and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and offering analysis on local television news shows during campaign season. On television, “Dr. Bob” would grade the campaigns, dissect the political messages and their effectiveness, or lack thereof, and was seen by many as the next Larry Sabato, the well-known dial-a-quote political scientist from the University of Virginia.

The real coup came when Holsworth somehow lured former Gov. Doug Wilder to teach a class at VCU in the spring of 1995. Fresh off his historic term as the country's first African-American governor, Wilder was a national celebrity. His decision to join Holsworth in academia suddenly put VCU in the national spotlight. While Wilder gained academic credibility, a new career was launched for Holsworth. The relationship cemented Holsworth's status as the city's political scientist du jour and helped catapult his rapid rise through the ranks at VCU.
Shortly after Wilder came on board, Holsworth was named director of the Center for Public Policy, and then director of the renamed L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Holsworth was also central in bringing on former state Secretary of Finance Paul W. Timmreck, under both Wilder and Allen, as VCU's chief finance and administrative officer. In May 2006, Holsworth was named dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, the largest on campus.

On his way up, Holsworth also found himself in Wilder's inner circle, serving as chairman of the mayor's education advisory committee during a combative period when Wilder was crossing swords with the School Board over his City of the Future plan.

Holsworth says his involvement satisfied his natural itch to get involved in shaping public policy. At VCU, his deanship had allowed him to work with a variety of different disciplines and that role naturally extended to city policy.

“There are all kinds of political scientists,” Holsworth says. “A lot of people work very close to the policy arena — that's a good thing.”
But he had to operate within the working structure of Wilderdom, which is built on confrontational politics and — as Holsworth wrote in Style in 1990 — Wilder's somewhat “conspiratorial view of politics.” In other words, to be an effective policy driver, he had to get awfully close to a politician he'd often criticized for his lack of transparency. On the Back Page of Style, he once described Wilder's governorship as “charmingly imperial.”

While he admired Wilder's “fierce independence” and political skill on the campaign trail, Holsworth bemoaned some of his not-so-admirable qualities.

“We should recognize that the same traits that helped Wilder make history are also the sources of his more exasperating and disturbing political qualities,” he wrote in a commentary published Oct. 2, 1990. “Wilder is so independent that he has developed an unduly secretive mode of operation and an almost conspiratorial view of politics. He has never been an especially local or reliable ally.”

Wilder had nothing to do with the Monroe degree, Holsworth insists, and stands by his decision to join the ranks of the mayor's policy makers. Holsworth says his friendship with Wilder has given him a better appreciation of Wilder's rare political gifts. “The things that people dislike about him,” Holsworth says, “are very much related to the characteristics that enabled him to have the kind of success he's had.”

He points to Wilder's brief presidential bid in 1991, when he rebuffed the extended hand of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who offered to campaign on his behalf. Wilder, Holsworth recalls, told Jackson he'd love to have him campaign on his behalf, as long as he “didn't step foot in Virginia.”

Holsworth's face lights up recounting the incident: “What political figure in America would have done something like that?”

But some say the admiration for Wilder went too far. Did Holsworth, the rising administrator and policy expert, have to compromise his own beliefs? It was Holsworth who criticized Wilder for having “no intention opening up government” in 1990. But when the Holsworth-led education committee was berated by School Board and City Council members for being closed to the public two years ago, Holsworth stood pat. When Richmond School Board Chairman David Ballard requested in April 2006 to attend the education committee's next meeting, Holsworth told Style: “He'll be invited at an appropriate time.”

Holsworth also defended Wilder when the issue first arose over the mayor's dual role as working professor for the ever-expanding VCU, teaching a single class and getting paid $50,000 a year. What if the university's expansion conflicted with the city's master plan, or Trani were to propose tearing down the historic West Hospital on Broad Street?
Would there be a conflict of interest? “I don't see it,” Holsworth told the Times-Dispatch in January 2005.

In the court of public opinion, at least, Holsworth's fate is tied to a whopper of a conflict: His relationship with Wilder and Trani and the police chief's miracle, two-course bachelor's degree. Holsworth, for his part, maintains his innocence and welcomes a legislative review of how the degree was awarded. He calls such a review “perfectly appropriate” and promises to “cooperate fully” when the time comes.

Meanwhile, faculty members bemoan the loss of an effective administrator in Holsworth. “He's the most just, fair, decent leader that we've ever worked with,” says Judy Twigg, professor of political science in the Wilder school. “There are many people who are astounded and, in my case, angry over the way Bob has been treated.”
Ditto for Herbert Hirsch, a longtime professor of political science and ardent Holsworth supporter. “He was a promising administrator, and an excellent dean,” Hirsch says. “Whenever something like this happens, I think about a statement [by Henry Kissinger]. University politics are so nasty because the stakes are so small.”

Meanwhile, Holsworth smiles and shrugs the whole ordeal off. He plans to continue teaching at VCU, and talks of starting a nonpartisan political blog. He says he doesn't plan to dwell on what happened.

“I don't want to be a person who spends my life reliving that and trying to help people see it differently,” he says of the degree scandal. Did his relationship with Wilder go too far? “How people look at the context of that relationship, I can't say,” Holsworth says. “That a very good [relationship with Wilder] for 14 years is somehow responsible?”
Dr. Bob doesn't see it. “I don't think it was a problem,” he says. S

Add a comment