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.