Va. attorney general off to rocky start with state colleges

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Sunday, May 23, 2010; C01

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 twice taken stands bound to enrage the fiercely independent and largely liberal universities. First, he challenged university policies that bar discrimination against gay men and lesbians, and then he used a civil subpoena to demand documents from a former University of Virginia professor known for his scientific work on global warming. Cuccinelli said he is investigating the possible fraudulent use of public funds.

In so doing, Cuccinelli has turned his attentions to a target that has long vexed conservatives. For many of them, college campuses are home to liberal elites, places that claim to value academic freedom but 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 Accuracy in Academia, which monitors professors nationally for 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 long enjoyed bipartisan support, and a broad fight with academia could alienate business leaders whose backing will be crucial if Cuccinelli makes any future run for office.

Cuccinelli, who holds a degree from the University of Virginia and two graduate degrees from George Mason University, rejects the idea that he has been purposely poking at higher education. He has cast both campus initiatives as fights foisted upon him by his office's responsibility to uphold state 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 enable him to challenge liberal academia. That theme has been adopted by the state's Democratic Party, which 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 a 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 left-wing thinking and depravity, it's sort of like shooting bears at a garbage dump. You're guaranteed to score points."

Raising his profile

Intentionally or not, Cuccinelli has made a name for himself among faculty and students in a way rarely accomplished by a state-level politician.

After 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 Richmond's Virginia Commonwealth University organized a protest that culminated in a march from the campus to the state Capitol.

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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