The University of Virginia’s decision to hire a departing member of President Trump’s administration prompted an outcry last week from some faculty and students angry about the president’s response to a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville last year that turned deadly. An online petition calling on U-Va. to revoke the teaching appointment of Marc Short, who until earlier this month served as Trump’s legislative affairs director, quickly gained more than 1,000 signatures. Here, William Antholis, the director and chief executive of the Miller Center, reflects on the debate and explains the decision to offer Short a fellowship:
I recently offered a senior fellowship to Marc Short, the former legislative director in the Trump White House, so that he can help Miller Center scholars better understand the Trump presidency and the challenges facing American politics. Since that time, there has been considerable debate among the faculty and staff at the center, at U-Va., and beyond.
Especially here in Charlottesville after the events of August 2017, people might question the appointment. Given the concern, I wanted to provide our community a broader explanation.
The Miller Center aims to be the leading center for the study of the U.S. presidency. Never has our work been more important than now.
Senior fellows, such as Marc, serve in our Presidential Studies Program. Marc will participate in Miller Center events and research initiatives, including opportunities to discuss and debate the Trump presidency itself. He has also been invited to give guest lectures in classes across the university.
Marc will help us think through how to capture the Trump presidency through our signature Presidential Oral History Program. In addition, he will contribute to an ongoing research undertaking and conference that will explore how the presidency, Congress, and political polarization are combining to create policy and legislative gridlock. His contributions will help keep Miller Center scholars at the cutting edge of their research field.
Marc’s appointment is a one-year fellowship; it is not a faculty position. Senior fellows are selected by the director of the center, in consultation with the director of presidential studies. In this case, knowing the controversies surrounding President Trump and some of his appointees, I also consulted more extensively than in previous senior fellowship appointments with other senior faculty members, senior fellows, members of the center’s Governing Council, and policy professionals from both political parties.
Those who know Marc gave him high marks for his intelligence and effectiveness, not to mention his integrity and collegiality. The decision to make this appointment was ultimately mine.
Marc joins a list of other practitioners, from both Democratic and Republican administrations, who form a critical bridge for our scholars to the policymaking community, and vice versa. Our current roster of White House alumni includes Melody Barnes (Barack Obama); Mary Kate Cary (George H.W. Bush); Chris Lu (Obama); and Eric Edelman (George W. Bush). They join with a senior faculty member, Philip Zelikow, whose federal service stretched from Ronald Reagan to Obama. I served in the White House and State Department under President Bill Clinton.
In the last two weeks, a number of our scholars and staff have raised concerns about Marc Short’s appointment. They believe deeply that this administration represents a dramatic departure from previous presidencies and has upended many of the norms that have long guided American institutions.
I myself have written articles sharply critical of the administration within the realm of my own expertise. Many of our scholars and staff believe strongly that this administration is not only disruptive but is in fact dangerous.
Recent exchanges with these scholars and others have been one of the richest experiences in my professional career.
Those who have objected to this decision are among the best scholars our country has to offer. They are Democrats, Republicans and independents. Their concerns touched a number of points of substance that should be taken seriously. They also spoke to our mission and processes, and we will continue to address these in the coming months. This debate has only reinforced for me why the Miller Center is such a cherished organization and why I’m so proud to work with them.
In these discussions, last year’s abhorrent events in Charlottesville were a regular point of reference. They remain searing, as I personally witnessed the hate and hurt brought to our community. Our Governing Council issued a sharp denunciation of the perpetrators of those events — one that Marc has read and embraced.
Indeed, that context drove me to make this appointment. Obviously, this appointment is squarely in our core work of studying the presidency. Marc’s experience and expertise only strengthen our ability to understand and explain this administration, including in its most difficult and divisive moments.
But this appointment also speaks to a greater challenge for all of us: welcoming someone back into our community to begin a robust and hard conversation about the future of our democracy, and doing so in an environment that prioritizes rational and respectful discourse. Marc brings a missing critical voice — one that represents members of Congress and the Republican Party who continue to support the president in large numbers.
Nearly all of my colleagues — including most of those who disagree with this appointment — share my belief that service in the Trump administration should not be a bar to service at the University of Virginia or the Miller Center. They should be commended for that, even if they share a different view of this appointment. Most remain willing to engage and debate Marc.
It is particularly important that, at a moment of intense political polarization, we try to better understand one another’s viewpoints and, if possible, work to bridge our political divide.
Our focus on the presidency, our commitment to nonpartisanship and our demonstrated ability to promote civil discourse are worth defending, especially in trying times.
My sincere thanks for all who have sent their comments, both in support and in opposition. Your own continued engagement with our democracy makes the Miller Center a special home.
William J. Antholis is the director and CEO of the Miller Center, a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia that specializes in presidential scholarship, public policy and political history. He previously served as managing director at the Brookings Institution from 2004 to 2014. He served as director of international economic affairs on the staff of the National Security Council and National Economic Council in the Bill Clinton White House.