Two leading historians resigned Monday from the University of Virginia’s Miller Center to protest the appointment of a former Trump administration official to a senior fellowship.
The selection of Marc Short, who served as President Trump’s legislative affairs director until earlier this month, has roiled the university, with a petition signed by more than 2,000 people demanding his appointment be revoked.
Last week, Short said it was ironic that professors at the university Thomas Jefferson founded were trying to silence debate, but his opponents saw it as a principled stand in favor of scholarship, democracy and civil discourse.
The professors who are stepping down, Melvyn P. Leffler and William I. Hitchcock, jointly announced their decision to leave the Miller Center, a nonpartisan affiliate of U-Va. focused on studying the presidency and public policy.
Leffler is a history professor, former dean of U-Va.’s College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and a recipient of the university’s most prestigious award for scholarship and service. Hitchcock is a history professor whose book about the liberation of Europe was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2009.
Leffler and Hitchcock wrote in their resignation letter that they would welcome Short to speak at the center. But granting him a senior fellowship position — one they learned of through a press release — runs “counter to the Center’s fundamental values of nonpartisanship, transparency, openness, a passion for truth and objectivity, and civility,” they wrote. The appointment comes almost a year after white supremacists marched at the school and in the city of Charlottesville, resulting in violent clashes with counterprotesters that the president blamed on “both sides,” events that seared the community.
“Democracy today in the United States is in peril,” they wrote. “… We must not normalize or rationalize hateful, cruel and demeaning behavior. When we see things to be wrong, we must speak out and take a stand.”
Short did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Short worked on Oliver North’s 1994 Senate campaign in Virginia and served as chief of staff for former senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.). He led Freedom Partners, a political nonprofit with ties to influential conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, and served in the Trump administration for the past year and a half.
William J. Antholis, director and chief executive of the Miller Center, said Monday he was saddened by the resignations. The work of the center’s scholars to understand the U.S. presidency is more important than ever, he said.
Antholis said Short would help keep Miller scholars on the cutting edge, joining a roster of former administration officials from both parties.
“One of the things that drives concern about this appointment and this presidency is that it’s not just a disruptive one but a dangerous one, dangerous to our democratic institutions,” Antholis said. At times, he said, he shares that concern about Trump’s presidency. But in appointing Short, Antholis said, he made a judgment about an individual, concluding Short falls well within the bounds of normal political debate.
Antholis served in the Clinton administration and knows there were conservative critics who felt Bill Clinton undermined democracy. “I feel an obligation to understand the Trump presidency in the best way we possibly can while still respecting legitimate debate,” Antholis said.
Hitchcock said some at U-Va. felt Short’s appointment was a big win for the center. But he said that he believes Short’s career as a political operative suggests he will not mesh with the Miller Center’s emphasis on nonpartisan inquiry and that faculty should have reviewed the appointment.
“We believe that scholars at think tanks should be allowed to do scholarly work,” he said, “that they should be trusted, that their experience and their knowledge should be put to use, rather than ignored in favor of the glittering attraction of powerful people. … It’s through scholarship we’re going to learn better about the nature of the Trump administration.”
Hitchcock will remain a tenured faculty member at U-Va. but said he is sad to be leaving the Miller Center and the opportunities it afforded him.
Leffler, who will also retain his university post, said the decision to resign from the Miller Center was difficult because he values engaging policymakers across the political and ideological spectrum. But he felt compelled to step down “because I think that it is absolutely wrong to legitimize and normalize and reward and honor a person like Marc Short at the Miller Center.”
The professor said that he could have accepted Short as a guest at the center expressing his views but that the senior fellowship was not merited by Short’s career and violates the values of the center.
“Many people feel that Marc Short is a facilitator and a defender of an administration that assails truth and objectivity every day,” Leffler said.
The center has long represented informed dialogue, said Douglas Blackmon, a Miller Center faculty member and incoming senior fellow, but in this case, it didn’t follow its principles. “It was a highly unwise thing for the Miller Center to barrel ahead extending its imprimatur and its brand to a person whose record is really unknown other than his public commentary — which may have been what Marc Short really believed, may have been what he was directed to say, may be somewhere in between,” said Blackmon, who is remaining at the center.
L.F. Payne, a former Democratic congressman from Virginia with deep ties to the university and who serves on the Miller Center’s governing council, said he knows Short from when they were colleagues at the law firm McGuireWoods and has tremendous respect for him. Short, a graduate of U-Va.’s Darden School of Business, is someone whom Payne described as deeply thoughtful, with integrity, strong convictions and respect for other viewpoints.
Given the center’s study of the American presidency, Payne said, “the opportunity to have someone like Marc who had been in the Trump administration very close to the president to join us as a senior fellow is something I was very enthusiastic about and still am. I was surprised and saddened by the reaction and subsequent resignation by two of our really prized faculty members.”
Payne said the anniversary of last August’s Unite the Right rally is at the forefront of people’s minds in Charlottesville, and Trump’s comments about the clashes still rankle.
Antholis, who lives a couple of blocks from the statue of Robert E. Lee that drew white nationalists and others to Charlottesville a year ago, said it was important that someone who is a U-Va. graduate and cares about the university would join the center to foster understanding about the Trump administration.
It’s a difficult time for the country, he said, “and for that reason, it’s important to do the hard things.”