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Va. attorney general off to rocky start with state colleges

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II. (Steve Helber - AP)
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Cuccinelli held that the state-run schools could not legally adopt such policies unless the General Assembly recognized sexual orientation as defining a protected class. The position was identical to that of a Cuccinelli predecessor, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), and Cuccinelli said he wrote his letter in response to inquiries. But as attorney general, McDonnell never took steps to make his opinion known on every state campus.

McDonnell 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 policies on nondiscrimination, in open defiance to Cuccinelli's letter.

This past week, more than 675 Virginia professors also signed a letter asking that Cuccinelli drop his demand for documents related to the work of former U-Va. climate scientist Michael Mann, calling it "burdensome and entirely unwarranted." The university's Board of Visitors, which usually 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 suing the Environmental Protection Agency over global warming, promised an objective review of the documents, but he said he has a duty to investigate allegations of fraud in publicly funded research.

Past tensions

Cuccinelli is hardly the first Virginia politician to tangle with the state's universities.

Govs. L. Douglas Wilder (D), George Allen (R) and James S. Gilmore III (R) each clashed with college leaders over university governance, faculty salaries and tuition increases, said former Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist Robert D. 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 former Republican secretary of state Lawrence S. Eagleburger, then a member of the College of William and Mary's governing board, helped write a Washington Post column arguing against "slavish obedience" by the colleges to elected leaders.

Now, Eagleburger said, he is torn about Cuccinelli's efforts, particularly the global warming subpoena. "I am very much worried about government meddling in higher education," he said.

But, like many conservatives, Eagleburger believes that some scientists have 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.

"Ken Cuccinelli is not a straddler," said Michael P. Farris, a longtime activist and legal scholar whose concern with a leftward tilt in 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."

Staff writer David Montgomery contributed to this report.

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