RICHMOND — Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II is quickly gaining a reputation as a political antagonist to the state’s college campuses.
Cuccinelli (R), in office since January, has already twice taken stands bound to enrage the fiercely independent and, some say, largely liberal universities by first challenging university policies that bar discrimination against gays and lesbians and then using a civil subpoena to demand documents from a former University of Virginia professor known for his scientific work on global warming. Cuccinelli says he’s investigating the possible fraudulent use of public funds.
In so doing, the attorney general has turned his feisty attentions to a target that has long vexed conservatives. For many, college campuses are the home of liberal elites, places that claim to value academic freedom but instead demand allegiance to left-wing views and pass them on to students.
Among the activists who are Cuccinelli’s most ardent supporters, his willingness to brave the barbs of university intellectuals could make him even more appealing, strengthening his hand as he continues to build a national network of support.
“It so kills me that there are these allegations that he’s stomping on academic freedom, when all the evidence indicates that the danger to academic freedom is on the other side,” said Mal Kline, executive director of Accu-racy in Academia, which monitors professors nationally for perceived liberal bias. “There’s this groupthink — they’re innately hostile to information that doesn’t support their views.”
But there is peril, too, for Cuccinelli in his battle with public colleges. In a state that prides itself on a university system founded by Thomas Jefferson, colleges have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support, and a broad fight with academia could alienate business leaders whose support would be crucial if Cuccinelli makes any future run for office.
UVa, GMU graduate
A product of the state’s public universities who holds a degree from UVa and two graduate degrees from George Mason University, the attorney general has shied from the notion that he has been purposely poking at higher education.
He has cast both of his campus initiatives as fights foisted upon him by the responsibility of his office to uphold Virginia law.
“It’s not appropriate for me to be concerned about risk to my political standing in my decision-making,” he said recently. “I deal with the [political] consequences of decisions I make that I believe to be appropriate decisions as part of my job, but I don’t change those decisions because of the expected consequences.”
But many faculty members and students are convinced Cuccinelli is cherry-picking issues that will enable him to challenge liberal academia.
That theme has been adopted by the state’s Democratic Party, which recently released a statement calling on Cuccinelli to keep his “hands off our universities.”
“It’s quite easy to pick on us because everyone he wants to pander to already thinks we’re overpaid Marxists,” said David Burdige, an oceanographer at Old Dominion University and member of the school’s Faculty Senate. “If you’re trying to appeal to a particular group of people, then picking on the university as being bastions of leftwing thinking and depravity, it’s sort of like shooting bears at a garbage dump. You’re guaranteed to score points.”
Making himself known
Whether intentionally or not, Cuccinelli has succeeded in making a name for himself among faculty and students in a way rarely accomplished by a state-level politician.
When he sent letters to the presidents and boards of every college in March instructing them to change policies that barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, students across Virginia launched a slew of anti-Cuccinelli Facebook groups. Students at Virginia Commonwealth University organized a protest that culminated in a march from their campus to the state capital.
Cuccinelli held that the state-run schools could not legally adopt such policies unless the General Assembly recognized sexual orientation as a protected class. The position was identical to that of Cuccinelli’s predecessor, Gov. Bob. McDonnell, and Cuccinelli said he wrote his letter in response to inquiries.
But as attorney general, McDonnell never took steps to proactively make his opinion known on every state campus. McDonnell then undercut Cuccinelli’s position by issuing a non-legally binding executive directive that prohibited discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation in state agencies. Citing McDonnell’s action, several of the state’s college governing boards adopted resolutions reaffirming their previous policies on nondiscrimination, in open defiance to Cuccinelli’s letter.
This week, more than 675 Virginia professors also signed a letter asking that Cuccinelli drop his demand for documents related to the work of former UVa climate scientist Michael Mann, calling the demand “burdensome and entirely unwarranted.” The university’s Board of Visitors, which normally receives legal counsel from an on-campus representative of the attorney general’s office, has now hired an outside firm to consider whether to fight Cuccinelli in court over the issue.
Cuccinelli, who is also suing the Environmental Protection Agency over global warming, has promised an objective review of the documents but said he has a duty to investigate allegations of fraud in publicly funded research.
Other sour relationships
Cuccinelli is hardly the first Virginia politician to tangle with the state’s universities.
Govs. Douglas Wilder (D), George Allen (R) and Jim Gilmore (R) each clashed with college leaders over university governance, faculty salaries and tuition hikes, notes former VCU political scientist Robert Holsworth.
“There’s always been this love-hate relationship between state government leaders and the universities,” he said. “There’s this sense that these are great institutions that need to be supported, but then they go off and do whatever they want.”
Gilmore’s relationship with college trustees soured so badly in 1999 that venerable former Republican Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, then a member of the College of William & Mary’s governing board, helped write a Washington Post column arguing against “slavish obedience” by the colleges to elected leaders.
Now, Eagleburger, an Albemarle County resident, said he is torn about Cuccinelli’s efforts, particularly surrounding the global warming subpoena.
“I am very much worried about government meddling in higher education,” he said. But, like many conservatives, he added that he believes strongly that some scientists have purposely hyped data to build a case for global warming.
“While it sounds like this is pretty Draconian reaction, I’m inclined on the basis of what I know to say that I don’t know that the attorney general has much choice. Either he ignores it or he does something about it,” Eagleburger said.
Conservatives who share Eagleburger’s views on global warming are cheering Cuccinelli for not being deterred by campus criticism as he seeks to prove the science is a fraud.
“Ken Cuccinelli is not a straddler,” said Michael Farris, a longtime activist and legal scholar whose concern with leftward tilt of academia led him to found the Christian Patrick Henry College in Purcellville in 2000. “As a consequence of that clarity, there are people who are going to love him and people who are going to hate him. And I think that’s a good thing.”
Washington Post staff writer David Montgomery contributed to this story.