Scott Surovell’s End Run Around Jason Miyares

Sen. Scott Surovell

by James A. Bacon

The battle for control of higher-ed institutions in Virginia is boiling over into the state legislature. Senator Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, has submitted a bill, SB 506, that would allow Virginia’s public universities to hire their own legal counsel in place of lawyers answering to the Attorney General.

The bill would give governing boards of every institution authority over the hiring of “outside legal counsel, the oversight and management of any legal counsel, and the appointment of a general counsel to serve as the chief legal officer of the institution.”

Attorney General Jason Miyares

Public universities are classified as state agencies. Like other state agencies, their legal interests are represented by counsel that reports to the Office of Attorney General.

The underlying political conflict is who controls Virginia’s colleges and universities. The issue surfaced last year when former Bowdoin University President Clayton Rose addressed the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors and suggested that board members owe their primary loyalty to the institution, not their personal agendas. He received pushback from two board members appointed by Governor Glenn Youngkin who argued that the duty of board members is to represent the interests of the Commonwealth of Virginia, not the institution itself.

Youngkin asked Attorney General Jason Miyares to address the question. Miyares issued a finding that, indeed, the primary duty of board members is to the Commonwealth. This led to allegations that the finding could pave the way for Youngkin to get rid of board members he doesn’t like.

“This effort to define the boards as having to be ‘loyal to the commonwealth’ is all about trying to position the way that the governor’s authority is structured,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, a UVA law school grad, chief deputy attorney general, and former president of the Virginia chapter of the ACLU. “This is for getting rid of people.”

There is zero evidence to support Gastañaga’s charge. Youngkin has not tried to evict any board member at the University of Virginia or, to my knowledge, at any other institution. Rather, has waited for board positions to expire before putting his own selections into place. Meanwhile, adopting a non-confrontational approach, he has chosen to advance his top goals of protecting free speech and promoting viewpoint diversity by enlisting the cooperation of university presidents and administrators. At a higher-ed summit late last year, presidents were asked to prepare their own institution-specific plans for putting the principles into action. 

In truth, the bill will have little impact on the Governor’s authority. But it will directly impact the Attorney General’s authority. In early 2022, Miyares ousted UVA’s chief counsel Timothy Heaphy, who had been appointed at the urging of President Jim Ryan, over disagreements the AG’s office had with unspecified legal decisions. Miyares was, of course, accused of playing politics, although his accusers never articulated a credible theory of what political motive he might have had. To replace Heaphy, he appointed Cliff Iler, largely on the basis of his knowledge of healthcare law relevant to UVA’s health system. Iler who is moderately conservative in his personal politics, has proven to be technocratic in his approach to the office.

The ulterior motive behind the legislation, I would suggest, is to help university presidents gain control over the offices of legal counsel as UVA and other institutions grapple with the implications of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling over the role of race in admissions. Before the ruling, UVA and other public universities unabashedly gave preferential treatment to so-called “marginalized” groups — Hispanics and Blacks specifically — in undergraduate admissions, graduate school recruitment, and the hiring and promotion of faculty members. Now they must craft mechanisms to achieve the same goals without running afoul of the ruling. Legal counsels can either help them or thwart them in this effort. At present, every legal counsel reports to Miyares, a Republican who opposes racial preferences. 

The stakes will be higher come July 1, 2024, when Youngkin makes his next round of Board of Visitors appointments. At long last, his appointees will constitute a majority of every board and have the latitude to compel left-leaning presidents to modify policies on racial preferences and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. University counsels could be pivotal players in clashes to come.

How SB 506 would work out in practice is not clear, though. The bill would confer the hiring authority upon the “governing board” of each institution. Boards, not university presidents, would call the shots on whom to hire. Would Youngkin appointees, who will dominate boards July 1, agree to replace Miyares-appointed university counsels with outside counsel? That’s an open question. If board members are passive and compliant, as is typically the case, university presidents might well get their way and hire whom they want.

According to the Times-Dispatch, Surovell said he was responding to board members who called him to express confusion. “(They) need to be able to hire counsel that will give them straight legal advice that’s not affected by political considerations.”

Are we to believe that firing university counsel for providing “political” advice is not itself being “political”? Are we to believe that the bill is not designed to allow universities to hire private counsel that will tell the presidents what they want to hear? Let’s just be honest, everyone is maneuvering for political advantage.

And that includes Surovell, a University of Virginia law school grad, Democrat, and savvy politician who worked his way up to the position of Senate Majority Leader. His daughter Eva was the editor of the Cavalier Daily and a lead author of attacks on Bert Ellis. Smearing the Youngkin nominee as a racist and homophobe largely on the basis of her articles, Democrats came within a hair’s width of blocking his appointment to the UVA Board. Surovell is highly attuned to the internal politics of UVA, and it’s not a stretch to suggest that he wrote SB  506 with UVA very much in mind.

Full disclosure: Bert Ellis was president of The Jefferson Council before resigning to serve on the UVA Board of Visitors.

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Thomas Purkins
Thomas Purkins
4 months ago

I would suspect that Gov. Youngkin’s pen will be quite busy in the near future. The weather prediction for Richmond should be heavy on veto activity.

4 months ago

Thank you Mr. Bacon for bringing to light and exposing this very blatant and obvious attempt at gaslighting on the part of Gastanaga, who it would appear is acting as Surovell’s mouthpiece. In concert of course with blatant projection always employed by the left to further obfuscate the issue when she makes the accusation as to “getting rid of people.” Which is what in fact Surovell’s UVA student “mouthpiece at the time” daughter and her ilk were intent on doing as to Bert Ellis. Thank God she is no longer a “Surovell mouthpiece,” to my knowledge, there presently on Grounds to stir up the indoctrinated sycophantic zomby leftist elements.

And yes Tim Heaphy as a side actor amongst this troupe who thankfully was dispatched by Miyares and ended up being a key part of the nefarious, unconstitutional and comical Jan 6 committee as parodied by SNL. Starring a former cheerleader from my McLean, VA high school who sure enough recently landed courtesy of our very own “Larry” who heads up the “nonpartisan” Center for Politics and its sister entity, the Karsh Institute for Fascism(oops, democracy). My point, to summarize this paragraph, is that you can only witness this comedic farce when you have a leftist, groupthink monoculture promoting not dialogue but monologue as Ryan would like to obviously impose on the BOV by way of the use of these surrogates who are promoting this foolish VA Senate Bill.

FOIA requests for Ryan-Surovell emails would be further entertaining to read but no doubt that would be surely blocked or at least attempted to be blocked. Truth always eventually will come. Just a matter of time.

Meanwhile, I am looking forward to the upcoming presentation by Jonathan Haidt as to further sharpening the focus on elucidating the tell tale behavioral peculiarities of this leftist troupe of comical “useful idiots.”

walter smith
walter smith
4 months ago
Reply to  Clarity77

You hit on many things I wished to expound upon.
Heaphy is a Dem partisan. The J6 Committee was unConstitutional. The J6 Committee destroyed evidence! Heaphy didn’t instruct them to preserve the evidence? Is this how to SAVE OUR DEMOCRACY! He should never have been appointed UVA counsel to begin with.

As to Eva Surovell and the coordinated hit job on Bert Ellis. The Dem Party of Va, the University Dems, the CD all coordinated the hit. Student Council was in on the hit. The Faculty Senate was in on the hit, coordinating with StudCo, and “framing” (their words) as a safety issue and not because Bert was hostile to DEI. Ryan let this happen because he wanted the hit to happen. If he were an honest and moral leader, he would have denounced the character assassination. But he isn’t, and that is part of the explanation of the dying honor system.

Finally UVA would do its best to obscure the emails showing the collusion. Besides inflating the costs of an email search, if you ever got to it, UVA will then use FERPA to redact as much as they can get away with. Then UVA will try to use working papers or any other FOIA exemption it could get away with. But, if we ever get to do real email searches for a reasonable cost, here are my top 3:

  1. The Ryan extension, over 1 year early, and to a time that ends after the Governor succeeding Youngkin has made 3 BOV years of appointments (just by chance!)
  2. The accelerated 3rd jab from a Feb 1 deadline to a Jan 14 deadline, announced on Jan 7 and having nothing to do with the inauguration on Jan 15!
  3. The coordinated hit on Bert Ellis
4 months ago
Reply to  walter smith

To Walter and JIm,

Walter, your reminder as to the all important details is much appreciated and critical as to mounting a firm push back to this issue that Surovall et all seek to obfuscate. Jim, spot on as to at its very core the proposed bill as an attack ultimately on the will of the people. As in the case of the Jan 6 committee, while simultaneously spouting as to “saving the democracy.’ Pure clinical idiocy, as Freud and Jung long ago elucidated.

Moving on from the will of the people to the health of the people, for which primary principle as to my career in healthcare was summarized as to do no harm. Does this very same principal likewise not guide government especially when applied to institutions such as public universities?

And yet when it comes to those who are powerless, in the case of UVA, its very students, we have the horrific specter of promotion at UVA in all its departments the very mutilation, sterilization, and disfigurement of so called(always a pretty term employed) “gender affirming care.” I personally attended an August orientation for first year students in the new swank LGBTQ+ center on the main level of Newcomb where a group of obviously depressed and sad looking first years were “treated” to a seminar on how UVA and student insurance can further guide them along in destroying both their physical but mental well being. Shocking and absolutely appalling to sit there and observe this before my very own eyes!

And that came during the very same week that Ryan promulgated his vaccine mandate, which a monumental trove of continuing evidence and studies present day conclude as to dire harm, especially to a population rarely in fact affected. Practically absolute zero as to ever needing hospitalization and yet Ryan had the gall at a UVA alumni address soon after that it was the vaccine he mandated that resulted in zero hospitalizations! Anyone having the least education as to vaccines knows that transmissibility is in fact the standard determining whether or not a vaccine is successful, NOT HOSPITALIZATION! Meanwhile the virus spread like wildfire in those very kids that were threatened with expulsion if they did not comply to Ryan’s mandate. The vaccine and Ryan’s mandate therefore an utter failure! And those very kids and university staff now saddled with the long term effects of an unproven, untested vaccine. Where is the outrage and action on the part of Virginia state government starting with executive and legislature?!

And then there is the proven and documented increase in mental health issues, anxiety and depression among students and likely faculty having to do with the draconian Ryan imposition of DEI. If you happen to talk privately with University staff as I have they will readily relate how annoying and distasteful it is to be subjected to this obviously insane leftist ideology.

I have grandchildren now and more on the way and my prayer and hope is that by the time they are of age to apply to UVA that this present day dystopian madness be forever banished from Grounds and a return be made as Jefferson envisioned to a focus on truth as a proven avenue to mental well being and NOT social justice as presently is self evident as an avenue to mental disease!

I am very curious as to Miyares’ installment of Cliff Iler as Heaphy’s replacement. UVA’s Health System even from my position presently down here in Florida is very suspect in my view and Iler has much to do with how that department is being run under Ryan. Maybe Iler can start with addressing a very simple bizarre experience related to me by a fellow grandparent where her 12-year old granddaughter was told by UVA staff that she was too young to know and determine her gender. To which, good for her, she yelled back rightfully so to this kook UVA staff person, “I am female I have a vagina!!!” Should a child have to set straight a so-called UVA Health professional what has been known from the dawn of human history and as confirmed by my UVA undergrad biology major classes that there are in fact just two genders evident at birth if there is any question?!!!

Finally, where is the outrage and action on the part of Youngkin et al who should be protecting the health of Virginia citizens by stopping this. The left is self admittedly by many in their own ranks hopeless in their madness but it in no way means they should set the agenda for the rest of us!

And as to the will of the people there should be more UVA alumni stepping up to join and support the TJC! If not for their children and grandchildren, then certainly at the very least by way of gratitude as to having themselves availed a remarkable education before this current time of madness under Ryan and his current carefully groomed and controlled BOV. We must have leadership as at TJC. I am reminded of a young Alexander the Great’s observation, “I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep, but I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion!”

Jim Kovalchick
Jim Kovalchick
4 months ago

I expect that work of the Virginia legislature would be engaged these days with some pretty important business, and I wonder how a senator would come to prioritize giving this authority to the public universities. I can only assume that he and his party are trying to preserve liberal control of state universities as it exists today by cutting off lines of government control and potentially changing political thoughts. Jefferson would almost certainly abhor the underlying attempt to lock out the will of the people of the Commonwealth as expressed by elected representatives.