by James A. Bacon
In early October Governor Glenn Youngkin asked Attorney General Jason Miyares for a formal opinion on a seemingly innocuous question: Whose interests are members of Virginia’s public university governing boards supposed to represent? Miyares responded that the “primary duty” of the boards of visitors is to the commonwealth, not to the institutions themselves. The conclusion would seem to be so obvious, so clearly the intent of the state code, that it doesn’t warrant discussion.
But some people espy a vague but malign intent behind the finding.
Speaking to the higher-ed trade journal, Inside Higher Ed, Claire Gastañaga, former director of Virginia’s ACLU and a former deputy attorney general overseeing Virginia’s public colleges and universities, said Miyares’ opinion is a threat to the autonomy of public institutions. In the publication’s words, she “fears it signals an attempt by the governor to justify the removal of board members whose actions don’t align with his priorities” and replace them with appointees who share his priorities. Gastañaga pointed to the Bert Ellis bogeyman as evidence that Youngkin is scheming something nefarious.
Ellis, a co-founder and president of The Jefferson Council before resigning to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, had been accused of racism and homophobia based on misrepresentations of actions he had taken in 1975 as a co-chairman of the University of Virginia student union. His appointment as a member of the Board of Visitors was approved by the narrowest of margins in the state senate.
Gastañaga also pointed to the appointment of former Heritage Foundation president Edwin Feulner, to the Commission on Higher Education Board appointments, which advises the governor on college board appointments.
“You’ve got a bunch of stuff swirling around, so when I look at this opinion, I think, ‘This is the marinade. I wonder what the main dish is?’” Gastañaga said. “They’ve got some stuff they’re putting in this marinade, and then when it gets ready, they’ll bring out the main dish, and we might not like the taste.”
That’s it. That’s all she’s got — a culinary metaphor.
Neither Gastañaga nor Inside Higher Ed identified a single board member whom Youngkin might propose to fire.
Though substance free, the Gastañaga quotes are revelatory of a state of mind of within Virginia’s Democratic Party. They also may foretoken the kind of resistance Youngkin can expect as the day approaches — July 1, 2024 — when his third round of appointments will give him majorities on boards of Virginia’s public universities. Due to the staggered nature of board appointments, Northam holdovers still control the levers of power at every institution.
Here’s the prosaic reality of Youngkin’s higher-ed policy. He is working within the system. He has been solicitous of college and university presidents. He has not engaged in culture-war rhetoric (at least not in a higher-ed context). He has not sought to remove a single board-of-visitor member. He has not used the power of the purse or the threat of legislation to leverage change at any institution. Indeed, Youngkin’s approach has been so hands off that many conservatives wonder if he is equal to the task of achieving meaningful reform.
The germ of truth in the Inside Higher-Ed article is that Youngkin has insisted upon clarity about board of visitor obligations. As the publication quotes him as saying, ““There is this myth, and I want to dispel it. This myth that board members are cheerleaders for the university and cheerleaders for the president. That is not the way it works. You have a responsibility to the commonwealth of Virginia.”
Youngkin’s statement is indisputably true under his governorship, just as it was true under his predecessor Ralph Northam, who controversially used his executive authority to replace leadership at the Virginia Military Institute in order to implement “anti-racism” policies there.
The Inside Higher Ed article refers ominously to Youngkin’s higher-ed “agenda” without ever detailing what it is. Permit me to fill in that gap.
Aside from holding down the cost of attendance — a goal of every governor — Youngkin has singled out two issues in the higher-ed realm: Free speech and intellectual diversity. He started by challenging the council of Virginia university presidents to craft a statement endorsing the principles of free speech and viewpoint diversity, which it did. He hammered home those same themes yesterday at a statewide higher-ed summit held at the University of Virginia. Rather than documenting free-speech abuses or the dominance of leftist orthodoxy on campuses — entirely legitimate topics — panel discussions instead highlighted “best practices” that promote open dialogue and civil discourse. The administration also challenged Virginia’s higher-ed institutions to create “action plans” that will translate free-speech/viewpoint diversity rhetoric into practical reality. Each institution is expected to submit its own plan.
In another, less heralded initiative, the administration hired the Boston Consulting Group to help compile a wide range of metrics on enrollment, the alignment of degrees with workforce needs, the rate of degree completion, affordability, cost effectiveness, and the like. To circumvent the monopoly over the information that college administrators present to their boards, Team Youngkin has put this data directly in the hands of board members. What board members do with it remains to be seen.
At the University of Virginia, which the Jefferson Council monitors closely, we have seen no sign yet that this initiative has had any tangible effect on the decision-making process for raising tuition. The Ryan administration presented its own self-serving data during two finance committee hearings, allowing board members no opportunity to ask more than perfunctory questions or explore the data in any meaningful way. With a final vote scheduled for next week, there is no sign that any substantive discussion has taken place.
Critics speaking to Inside Higher Ed can point to nothing objectionable that Youngkin is doing. They are worried about what he might do. As Insider Higher Ed puts it, “Others cite legislation being proposed and passed by mostly conservative state lawmakers targeting policies and programs at public colleges and universities with which they disagree. … Several also wondered if Youngkin was taking a page from the political playbook of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a fellow Republican.”
Youngkin’s policies bear no resemblance whatsoever to DeSantis’ aggressive, top-down approach to higher-ed policy. Youngkin’s approach so far has been to avoid controversy (with the sole exception of sticking with his Bert Ellis appointment to the UVa board), work through the college presidents, appeal to reason, supply data, and share best practices.
I don’t purport to have any special insight into Youngkin’s thinking. But judging by his public words and actions, he seems to be betting that in the political context of a purple state trending blue he can accomplish more by working within the system rather than asserting his executive authority. Maybe his approach will change come July 1 when his appointees dominate boards across Virginia, but I have seen no hint of it.