Youngkin’s push to be involved in chancellor search succeeds

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin has rankled Democratic state lawmakers and some higher ed advocates by seeking to influence the search for a new chancellor of the state’s community college system. Some see his intrusion in the search as part of a broader, more heavy-handed approach to overseeing the state’s colleges and universities and trying to set their agenda and control their policies and practices.

Youngkin has been pushing the Virginia State Board for Community Colleges to involve his administration in the search process for the system’s new chancellor after Glenn DuBois, the former chancellor, announced his retirement last summer. The board relented last week and agreed to put a nonvoting representative of Youngkin’s administration on the search committee after he sent members a strongly worded letter saying they could fully “commit” to the search or leave their roles.

“While I know that the final decision rests with the VCCS Board, our team is excited and eager to work with you to find this exceptional leader as soon as possible,” Youngkin wrote in the letter last month. “As we start a new fiscal year on July 1st, I earnestly ask you to fully commit to this challenge and opportunity. If for any reason you feel like you cannot commit to this mission, I will accept your resignation by June 30th with gratitude for your service.”

Douglas Garcia, the incoming board chair and chair of the chancellor search committee, said in a statement last week that the board was “committed to working with the governor and his team.”

This exchange came after the governor wrote an earlier letter to Nathaniel Bishop, the outgoing chair of the board and head of the search committee, in March asking to be briefed on the board’s hiring strategy and the qualifications of the candidates for the chancellorship, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. Youngkin wrote in the letter obtained by the newspaper that he was concerned about the committee’s “unwillingness to collaborate with our administration on our priorities in workforce development.”

Atif Qarni, the former Virginia secretary of education, said Youngkin’s call for board members to consider resigning was “bizarre” behavior for a state governor.

“Governor Youngkin is definitely I think abusing his authority,” said Qarni, who now serves as managing director for external affairs at The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University. “It’s intimidating for board members. I do see that as a threat, and I do see that there are some legal boundaries that are being crossed at this point.”

He noted that the search for a new chancellor began under former Governor Ralph Northam, but Northam had “almost zero” involvement in the search process and his administration only gave input when asked by board members.

Qarni said the former administration also had a hands-off approach on hires at four-year public universities in the state.

” … At no point did we intervene in a presidential search,” he said. “That’s just unheard of.”

Democratic state lawmakers held a press conference last Wednesday to condemn Youngkin’s treatment of the board.

“His pattern of disrespect and inappropriate behavior toward the institutions of the Commonwealth is nothing short of a political takeover of apolitical government operations,” state senator Mamie Locke, chair of the Democratic caucus, said at the press conference.

Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg called the move “partisan strong-arming” and “a shameful overreach to seize control of Virginia’s public education systems.”

The governor’s office responded to an interview request by sending a written statement issued last week that said his goal was “mission alignment and making sure we have agreement on where this community college system needs to go.”

“I’ve expressed to every member of the board that I have really high expectations for our community college system,” he said. “And our community college system is critical to developing the kinds of academic opportunities and workforce development opportunities that the Commonwealth needs. If the members of the board are eager to lead and serve with that vision — then great.”

The search process thus far has had twists and turns. The board announced in March that Russell A. Kavalhuna, the president of Henry Ford College in Michigan, would become the new chancellor but he ultimately did not take the position for undisclosed reasons.

“Due to circumstances beyond my control, the VCCS path closed, and it is clear that Michigan and Henry Ford College are where my devotion to student success can make the most difference,” Kavalhuna said in a press release announcing he would stay at Henry Ford.

Some community college faculty members are disturbed by the governor’s involvement in the chancellor search process and its implications for the future leadership of the system.

“It seems like Governor Youngkin feels like he has more authority than he really has been assigned by the law,” said an instructor at Mountain Gateway Community College in Alleghany County, Virginia, who requested anonymity. “He seems just heavy handed, and I’m not sure where it’s going to go. We have a board. Just let them do their job.”

The instructor argued that the governor can already “have a say” in choosing the future chancellor by appointing new people to the board when members naturally conclude their terms and his insistence to get more involved fits into a pattern of interfering with decisions that should be made by leaders of state colleges, universities and public schools systems. For example, Youngkin set up an email address, or tip line, for parents of K-12 students to report “any instances where they feel that their fundamental rights are being violated, where their children are not being respected, where there are inherently divisive practices in their schools.”

According to the instructor, the tip line undermined the authority of teachers, school administrators and school board leaders who would normally be the ones to engage with parents about their concerns.

“That seems to be a theme … He takes authority away from the local board, the local college, the local administration, the people who know best, and puts it in Richmond.”

But not everyone is worried about Youngkin’s focus on the community college system. A longtime staff member at Virginia Western Community College said it’s “sort of flattering” to see the governor so invested in the community colleges’ future. The employee, who chose to remain anonymous, said although the relationship between system leaders and Youngkin got “off to a rough start,” Youngkin paying any kind of attention to “financially starved” community colleges is ultimately a positive development.

“I think there’s a good motivation behind this of developing the workforce,” the staff member said. “Because across the country, we can’t produce enough employees for so many jobs and so many critical jobs. That the system needs a shakeup, I don’t disagree with at all.” The employee believes the future chancellor won’t be “a political patronage” but “someone who can bring ideas to the table” and serve as a “coalition builder.”

Qarni said if the chancellor selected is “not well aware of best practices” for community colleges and is focused on promoting a “specific political agenda”, it could have long-term ripple effects for the community college system and its students. He noted that Youngkin’s administration ended a range of previous Virginia Department of Education initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion in education. That included the EdEquityVA program to close racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.

“I think that if this goes unchecked and someone is brought in that doesn’t have a good understanding of a community college system, it would be a big problem,” he said, noting that a chancellor could head the system for a decade, outlasting the governor’s time in office.

In general, Youngkin has taken a special interest in higher education in the state. For example, he sent a five-page letter to college and university leaders in May with a list of priorities, including continuing in-person learning, preparing graduates for in-demand jobs, keeping college costs down and creating “a culture that embraces free inquiry and a commitment to free speech.”

Some of his specific requests in the letter were to prioritize hiring faculty and staff members of “diverse political perspectives” and to freeze tuition for the 2022-23 academic year, reiterating a request he made to colleges and universities in February. So far, at least 10 state colleges and universities chose to freeze tuition, including institutions that had already planned tuition hikes for the fall. The University of Virginia, however, did not reverse course and will raise undergraduate base tuition by 4.7 percent as planned.

The governor also appointed four new members to the Board of Visitors of the Virginia Military Institute this month. The group, which is entirely white and mostly conservative, includes a former trustee who resigned right before a vote to remove a statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson from campus in 2020.

Qarni noted that other Republican governors, including Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas, have increasingly turned their attention to higher education, and education at large, to combat what they perceive as liberal messaging and values pervading the country’s schools and universities.

“I think the only intent is to micromanage because they fundamentally believe that somehow liberals or others have taken over our education system and there’s indoctrination happening, and that’s not the case at all,” he said.

Qarni believes that push grew stronger in the last two years as a backlash to the pandemic, which put a spotlight on racial disparities, and the nationwide racial justice protests that followed the killing of George Floyd. He sees Youngkin’s interference in the community college system as a part of that trend.

“We need to continue to monitor the overreach,” he said. “We need to continue to monitor the political agenda that’s being inserted with this overreach to undo a lot of the progress that was made in the last four years.”