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Youngkin pushes for more say in Virginia community colleges search

As the state system seeks a new leader, the governor seeks a voice in the search

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers remarks as he talks about his budget accomplishments at a restaurant Wednesday, June 22, in Woodbridge, Va. (Steve Helber/AP)

Some Democratic lawmakers objected to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s efforts to influence the search for a chancellor for the Virginia Community College System, accusing him of strong-arming and politicizing the process.

The Republican governor last month told members of the board that oversees the community college system that his administration was eager to work with them to “find this exceptional leader as soon as possible.” He asked any members unwilling to commit to the “transformation” he envisioned at community colleges to resign — by Thursday.

Leaders of the system responded this week by granting him a nonvoting voice in the search. It will be the second chancellor search in less than a year. Youngkin, who acknowledged the board has final say in a decision, had previously voiced concern about the earlier hiring process, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

The controversy was particularly fraught because Youngkin’s education policies have ignited culture-war clashes and protests in the commonwealth, as he took steps such as banning the teaching of critical race theory and giving parents the right to opt out of mask mandates in schools.

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And the community colleges serve more than 200,000 students at 23 colleges, magnifying the impact of any decisions.

“I’ve expressed to every member of the board that I have really high expectations for our community college system,” Youngkin said Thursday in a statement. “And our community college system is critical to developing the kinds of academic opportunities and workforce development opportunities that the Commonwealth needs. If the members of the board are eager to lead and serve with that vision — then great. This is all about mission alignment and making sure we have agreement on where this community college system needs to go.”

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In his letter to the Virginia State Board for Community Colleges last month, Youngkin wrote that nothing is more important to the future strength and agility of the workforce than hiring a “strong, proven, results-oriented leader” for the system.

But some lawmakers bristled at what they perceived as a threat to fire those board members who didn’t comply with his agenda.

“The governor’s actions are completely inconsistent with how we govern our institutions of higher education in Virginia,” said state Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax). “The governor doesn’t get to pick or even have a say in,” who’s chosen as president of the University of Virginia or Virginia Tech, and the community college system is the same. “It’s way too heavy-handed.”

“The last thing we want to do is inject a bunch of politics in how our universities are governed,” Surovell said. “ … The Republican Party often demonizes our institutions of higher education. They’re a convenient political football for people that are in power.”

The boards are designed to insulate institutions from that, he said.

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The state system’s longtime leader, Glenn DuBois, stepped down this week from the job he has held for more than 20 years. Last fall, the State Board for Community Colleges launched a national search for his successor.

That search committee had 15 members led by Nathaniel Bishop, who was then chairman of the board. It included eight members of the board, a couple of student representatives, a college president, a faculty representative, the chairman of the state charitable foundation, a senior staff member at the system office and a representative from the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.

The board voted in March to hire Russell Kavalhuna as chancellor. But in June, Kavalhuna announced he would continue as president of Henry Ford College in Michigan, and the board launched a new presidential search. Sharon Morrissey, a vice chancellor with the system, will serve as interim chancellor.

Surovell said Youngkin met with Kavalhuna after he had accepted the job, and that shortly afterward Kavalhuna announced he would be returning to the Michigan college, instead.

Kavalhuna declined an interview request Thursday.

Douglas Garcia, the incoming chairman of the Virginia Community College System State Board, said Wednesday in a statement that they are “committed to working with the governor and his team on the search for the new Chancellor who will lead Virginia’s Community Colleges in the coming years, and we will work to ensure that our programs remain affordable to all Virginians. We welcome a representative of the Administration to serve as a nonvoting member of our search committee.”

The board plans to meet July 21, with its executive committee expected to discuss a plan for the new chancellor search, said Jim Babb, a spokesman for the system.

Belle Wheelan, who is president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the system’s accreditor, and a former education secretary in Virginia, said the governor had not yet had a chance to appoint anyone to the board, and that may have spurred him to speak up. “He doesn’t have a spokesperson, if you will,” on the board.

That is expected to change quickly, as terms ended for three members of the board Thursday.

Youngkin announced more than 70 education appointees Thursday, to positions on boards such as U-Va.'s and the State Council for Higher Education for Virginia. No appointments to the community colleges board were announced at the time.

Youngkin said in his announcement that the appointees would help him work toward goals including “providing equal access to educational opportunities regardless of background or Zip code, protecting and promoting free speech, restoring the ability to have civil discourse, keeping tuition affordable, and ensuring that all Virginians have access to in-demand career pathways.” Youngkin has also emphasized the need to keep tuition low.

Wheelan said the college board had responded appropriately to the situation with the governor. It effectively thanked the governor for his input, she said, and then told him, “It’s our decision, we’re going to make it.”