The governing board of Virginia Tech drew fire from Gov. Mark R. Warner yesterday -- as well as from faculty and students -- over several surprise actions this week that appear to overturn affirmative action efforts, eliminate protections for gay men and lesbians and place new restrictions on campus gatherings.
Warner (D) sharply criticized the board for making major changes to admissions and employment policies "without advance public notice or . . . adequate public discussion." His comments triggered a heated response from the office of Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), who has been advising Virginia Tech and other campuses to move away from any consideration of race during the admissions process, well in advance of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue. Kilgore's spokesman, Tim Murtaugh, accused Warner of favoring discriminatory admissions practices.
Meanwhile, several hundred students rallied in front of the university president's office yesterday in opposition to the new policies, which they argued will violate free-speech rights and reduce diversity on the Blacksburg campus.
"The actions of the board have created a public image for Virginia Tech that is hostile and unwelcoming," warned Diane L. Zahm, vice president of the faculty senate.
School administrators said they were attempting to determine how the new policies -- approved at a board meeting late Monday without having appeared on the agenda -- will change day-to-day operations. "Not a single person at this university knew this was going to happen," said Karen Torgersen, director of undergraduate admissions.
John G. Rocovich Jr., rector of the board of visitors and a Roanoke lawyer, did not return a call for comment yesterday; an assistant said he was away from the office. Though some board members were named by Warner, most have been in place since their appointment by his predecessor, James S. Gilmore III (R).
The new policies, which school officials said were approved unanimously but not discussed in open session, appear to have their roots in recent unrelated controversies at the 130-year-old land-grant college, renowned for its agriculture and engineering programs:
* Earlier this year, a campus appearance by representatives of the self-described radical environmental group Earth First drew complaints by leaders of the local timber industry, who decried them as "eco-terrorists." The policy approved by the board on Monday bans appearances by any organization that advocates "illegal acts of domestic violence and/or terrorism" and requires that any student meeting on campus be approved by the president's office 30 days in advance.
* Last fall, the governing board was criticized for revoking a job offer made to a professor as part of a package to recruit her same-sex partner as graduate dean. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the decision came after several members received an anonymous anti-gay e-mail decrying the decision to hire the couple.
During Monday's meeting, the board agreed to hire the professor into a non-tenure-track job -- then shortly thereafter approved a new equal opportunity policy that deleted reference to discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The policy also specifies that the university may no longer consider race or sex when making admissions decisions. Board members said this week that their decision was based on advice from the attorney general last year that such considerations are illegal.
However, other Virginia universities have challenged that logic, saying they will continue to consider an applicant's race -- among many factors -- pending a decision later this spring by the U.S. Supreme Court.