The University of Virginia’s Miller Center plans to have President Donald Trump’s former director of legislative affairs play a high-profile role at events, make GOP connections and interact with donors, according to documents received through a public records request.
The controversial hiring of Marc Short, who worked for the president until July 20, has raised questions about how much influence he and other political operatives will have at the nonpartisan center, which studies the presidency. But the employment agreements of all of the center’s current 13 fellows reveal that the experts have a wide range of responsibilities, expectations and compensation.
While Short’s employment agreement lists expectations for planning events, drawing in GOP participants and fundraising, his contract merely codifies existing expectations for all fellows, according to the center.
According to Howard Witt, director of communications at the center, fellows have always been expected to attend events and leverage their connections.
“On an informal basis, fellows have always been meeting with potential donors,” Witt said. “Short’s contract just formalizes that expectation.”
Short previously has worked with brothers Charles and David Koch, who operate a network of conservative organizations, some of which have funded specific higher education projects with strings attached.
Short was “absolutely not” hired to specifically seek out additional Republican donors, Witt said, nor will Short have extra authority over events or center governance. The center, which is largely funded by donations, won’t accept money that tries to sway its nonpartisan commitment, Witt said — whether it’s from the Koch brothers, liberal billionaire George Soros or anyone else.
“We hired Marc Short for the reason we’ve explained over and over again, because he’s an insider in the Trump administration, and the Trump administration has been the most opaque administration of recent memory,” Witt said. “Academics and journalists have been trying to pierce through that veil.”
Short said he still only has a broad outline of the center’s expectations for his work, but looks forward to mapping out events and hopes to talk to both his and Trump’s supporters and critics in Charlottesville.
“Look, a lot has been accomplished in the first 18 months of the Trump administration,” Short said, naming the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act; the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch and nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court; the appointment of federal appeals court judges; and various efforts at regulatory relief.
“There’s a lot to discuss, and there’s a lot of noise that surrounds the Trump administration,” he said.
Short said he didn’t have much to add to previous comments to media about his views on Trump’s words and actions; he has said Trump could have done better to sympathize with local residents when Trump famously blamed “both sides” for the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
Trump’s comment was cited in a petition circulated in July to block Short’s appointment. It has garnered more than 4,000 signatures. And two UVa history professors resigned their appointments at the center in protest.
Short will receive $48,000 for his yearlong appointment and some money for travel expenses. That compensation, and the expectations for event attendance and networking, are about equal to former Democratic operative Chris Lu’s.
Lu was a deputy secretary of labor and assistant to President Barack Obama. Lu is asked to publish one essay and five op-eds with a major news outlet and to help plan a summit of former White House officials. He estimates he’s attended a center event about once a month since he joined the program in 2017. The events were a mix of educational outreach events, he said, and donor outreach events, but he said he’s never asked potential donors for money.
Lu said he didn’t want to comment on whether Short should have been given the fellowship. Unlike other academic centers that study politics, the Miller Center groups research and professional fellows together, and Lu said that, as a former political staffer, working with academics helped him find distance from and evaluate the Obama presidency.
“My Miller Center affiliation and the synergies between what I’m doing and what the academics here have been doing helps me achieve distance and informs my commentary,” Lu said.
Fellow Melody Barnes, former director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, receives the highest compensation, but she is also a part-time professor at the School of Law. Michael Nelson, a political science professor at Rhodes College and an expert on President Richard Nixon, will receive two $7,500 stipends over the course of the year. Eric Edelman served in the U.S. Department of State and Department of Defense and as an ambassador to Finland and Turkey during Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s administrations. He will receive a $20,000 stipend.
Edelman said he’s heard Short described as a good actor in Washington, and he supports the decision to bring Short in, but he understands opposition to Trump officials from some local residents.
“Everybody needs to be taken on their own merits and not be held responsible for the decisions of their boss,” said Edelman, who was a distinguished professor at the center in 2015 and 2016.
Eight of the fellows are current faculty members at UVa and won’t receive additional compensation for their work. The fellowship is a way to codify some of the collaboration and cross-departmental research already happening, Witt said, and to offer faculty members some additional resources. Faculty members sign a boilerplate employment agreement, which asks them to attend events, raise their public profile and make a few media appearances.
Charles Mathewes, a professor of religious studies at UVa, said he was interested in taking the fellowship in order to work on his public presence and spend more time with politics and ethics experts.
Mathewes said he looks forward to asking Short to explain his defense of various Trump actions, including the president’s comments on Charlottesville and his administration’s family separation policy.
He said he respects colleagues who feel Short shouldn’t have been hired as a fellow and those who think Short will help the center grapple with the Trump administration.
“This is a genuinely difficult issue for an institution that has at its center the study of the American presidency,” Mathewes wrote in an email. “We have had a number of very good conversations about it and I believe everyone has learned a great deal from them, and I believe the Miller Center will be a better place for it, though the loss of Will Hitchcock and Mel Leffler is a terrible blow,” he said, referring to the two professors who resigned from their Miller Center posts this summer.
The women in Georgia’s Healing House have a new home.
The historic house at 405 Ridge St. in Charlottesville was built in 1891, and up until recently was a bed and breakfast.
“We moved in a little over a month ago and we’re still getting settled,” Executive Director Sue Hess said.
Georgia’s Healing House was established in September 2015, and is home to women in recovery from substance addiction. The home originally was located in a rental house on Marchant Street, but that house was sold and the board eventually found “the perfect” new house.
An open house to celebrate the new home, which the organization purchased this summer, is being held from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday.
A capital campaign is ongoing to raise money to pay off the house, and the organization is eligible for a $250,000 Perry Foundation matching grant if it raises the funds by the end of the year.
In 2006, a group came together after their friend Georgia took her own life in jail after dealing with an alcohol addiction. The nonprofit Georgia’s Friends began in 2010 and the healing house opened in 2015.
“Georgia’s Healing House is a safe and structured therapeutic healing home for women that are struggling from addiction, both alcohol and drugs, but also mental health challenges,” said Heather Kellams, director of fundraising, community relations and programming.
The house has served more than 80 women since opening, and Kellams said more than 70 of those women also have had a mental health diagnosis.
“A lot of times, it’s hard to say which comes first,” she said. “Are we suffering from mental health issues and then we drink and drug? Or do we drink and drug and then have the mental health challenges?”
Women have to be at least 18 years old to live in the home, and must follow the house rules, which include observing a curfew and remaining sober. The women also must seek employment, assist with household duties and attend 12-step meetings regularly.
The residents are usually referred to the organization by mental health professionals, other organizations or professionals in the criminal justice system.
The target is that about 45 percent of residents’ income will help support the operation.
“We’re not a treatment center at Georgia’s Healing House, we’re a healing recovery home,” Kellams said. “We connect with Region Ten, the Women’s Initiative and outside therapists.”
Kellams herself is in recovery from alcohol addiction and lives in the house. She grew up in the Charlottesville area and received a degree in social work from James Madison University.
She married her high school sweetheart, had two children and was working her “dream job.”
“All of a sudden, when I was about 43, it came absolutely crashing down,” she said.
“I started drinking wine morning, noon and night and I could not stop.”
Kellams said that even though she always wanted to help people, she struggled to ask for help herself. Her problems got worse and she ultimately ended up in the hospital with her liver and kidneys failing and was given a 35 percent chance of surviving.
Ultimately, her mother found Georgia’s Healing House.
“I started to develop a sense of purpose,” she said.
With her skills as a trained social worker, she’s been leading other women in the house and is in the process of being trained as a peer specialist, she said.
“I wake up in the morning and I’m sober, clear-headed and doing purposeful work, and I have hope,” Kellams said
Tanya Sperl — who has had issues with alcohol throughout her life, primarily associated with a traumatic experience she had as a child — has lived in the house for eight months. She said she was in a psychologically abusive relationship, and she had an obsession with drinking.
“I am learning a lot about myself in this process and really working on how to have a healthy, productive and fulfilling life, especially in relation to my relationships with other people,” she said.
Sperl said all of the women at the house are “wonderful,” and they’re all at different points in their recoveries.
“We all have ups and downs, but I’m really proud of my sisters here at the house,” she said. “I feel honored to have known them and met them, and to be in recovery with them. The bonds that you form early in recovery — some of those people become like family to you.”
For her personally, she said she still has some social skills to work on.
“I think that even for someone like me who prefers to spend a lot of time by myself, I really need help spending time with other people, and this is a safe place to do it,” Sperl said.
Veronica Hester, who recently moved into the house, had been in and out of jail for 26 years, and described coming to Georgia’s Healing House as “the highlight of my life so far,” because of its changing power.
“You have to actually want the change in order to get it,” she said. “I love living here. When I leave and go out to work, I look forward to coming back here every day. It’s like a safe haven for me.”
While in jail most recently, she participated in a number of programs, which Hess said showed motivation and helped Hester in her interview to get a spot in the home.
“It was just mind over matter. I felt like it was time to do something different,” Hester said.
Originally from Fluvanna County, Hester moved to Charlottesville when she was 16 and has many supportive family members and friends in the community. She’s starting to make connections little by little with her sons and grandchildren.
“I take advantage of life today,” she said. “I love the change. I’m so grateful that I’m able to look in the mirror and see someone I actually like this time.”
The women in the house, and Hess and Kellams, are incredibly supportive, Hester said.
“You couldn’t find better people who are really pushing for our recovery, and I’m so grateful today for change,” she said.
Tsega Fisseha has thought a lot about what happened at the University of Virginia last summer.
“It makes me feel kind of emotional. It makes me wonder, why did this have to happen to my school,” the incoming UVa first-year student from Springfield said. “I wondered why they let the people onto the Grounds.”
Fisseha joined many classmates in moving into dorms Saturday. Students will continue to move in on Sunday and classes begin Tuesday.
Earlier this year, the university enacted a new free speech policy for alumni and outside protesters. The recommendation was made last year after a newly formed Dean’s Working Group found that UVa had insufficient policy protections and didn’t enforce existing rules when white supremacists marched through Grounds on Aug. 11, 2017.
“When I’m here on Grounds, I want to be able to make a difference and stand as a symbol for diversity and that we’re not scared of anyone,” Fisseha said. “That’s why I’m here, because I’m not going to let them change my decision.”
Dropping off her daughter Katherine, Ann Keesee said she was excited, but also overwhelmed and a bit sad.
“This is our baby, that’s why it’s sad,” she said. “But we are very proud of her, so we will make the most of it.”
Ann Keesee’s father went to UVa in the 1950s, and the school was Katherine’s first choice.
“She’s carrying on that UVa tradition in the family,” Keesee said.
She said the family never really talked about the events of the past year.
Katherine said she is excited for the school year to start.
“I think it’s a beautiful campus,” she said. “I don’t really know what I want to do; I chose it because it’s a prestigious university and it was an honor to get into.”
Earlier this year, UVa offered regular action admission to 9,850 students, or about 26.5 percent of the 37,222 who applied. Last fall, the university offered enrollment to 6,000 early-action applicants. The enrollment target for the first-year class is 3,725 students.
Gigi Espiritu said she was ready to cry Saturday morning.
“He’s my second. You would think it’s easier the second time around but it’s really not,” she said, while helping her son Noah move into his residence hall.
UVa is relatively close to Fairfax, where the family lives, and Noah received a scholarship. Both were factors in his choosing the school over another university where he also was accepted.
“I have friends who feel like they wouldn’t send their kids here out of principle because of the history of the school,” Espiritu said.
She said she thinks that’s changing and that there are more conversations about the history of the university, and she doesn’t hold it against UVa.
“It’s a great, great, great school,” she said. “We wouldn’t miss out on that because of the past.”
In a welcome address to parents and students at Old Cabell Hall, new UVa President Jim Ryan spoke about some of his hopes for his son, whom he took to Yale on Friday, saying he has the same hopes for UVa students.
Among other things, Ryan said he hopes his son is safe, is engaged and builds bridges, but also that he’s uncomfortable at times.
“I also believe that college is a perfect opportunity to confront ideas that are different, perhaps radically so, from your own,” he said.
Ryan said this year’s class comes from 106 Virginia localities, 43 states and 82 countries.
“All of us here view it as our duty and our privilege to create the conditions that will allow your hopes and the hopes of your children to be realized,” he said. “To be specific, we will do our best to keep your children safe and to help them make smart decisions.”
He encouraged parents to help their children make good decisions, including avoiding the Wertland Street Block Party. The university had a series of alternative events planned for the same time as the block party Saturday night, including a concert with T-Pain and several late-night activities at the Aquatic & Fitness Center.
Free speech and student safety were among the issues discussed during a question and answer session with Gloria Graham, UVa’s first associate vice president for safety and security; Archie Holmes, vice provost for academic affairs; and Allen Groves, dean of students.
When asked how UVa will protect free speech, Graham said the school supports First Amendment rights.
“We sometimes have to plan for the unexpected or we get information that requires us to develop safety and security protocol for protected speech, but for the vast majority of those instances, we don’t even get engaged,” she said.
Groves said he spoke about the First Amendment during summer orientation sessions.
“I think that’s often one of the hardest things, is to have things that you at 18,19, 20 believe strongly and to hear an opposing view, and to be challenged in that way, that is the only way in which we can develop the kind of intellect, the kind of keen thinking that we need in our young people,” he said.
Groves said that, by and large, UVa students have allowed people with whom they disagree to speak at UVa, and then asked hard questions of those people.
“That’s what an institution like ours should be about,” he said.