On the eve of graduation ceremonies for Virginia's public colleges and universities, Gov. Glenn Youngkin told their presidents this week that he expects them to promote free speech on campus and hire faculty and other staff "with diverse political perspectives."
Youngkin sent the five-page letter to the Council of Presidents on Monday, making clear his expectations on a range of cultural issues important to his conservative political base - from in-person instruction during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to creation of lab schools as a kind of charter school outside of traditional K-12 public education.
He also asked them to keep tuition flat during the next academic year, an issue that is part of the ongoing state budget negotiations between the House of Delegates and Senate, which traditionally disagree over state intrusions into the prerogatives of the boards of visitors that govern colleges and universities.
In March the State Board for Community Colleges named a new leader, defying Youngkin's call for the board to restart the hiring process and appoint an interim chancellor.
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This week's letter followed a meeting between the governor and presidents of Virginia's public colleges and universities, during which Youngkin said that he was "heartened to hear that each of you" considers free speech on a campus "an issue and priority."
Political conservatives have long viewed college campuses with suspicion, especially after student protests against public appearances by conservative leaders such as former Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke at the University of Virginia last month despite student efforts to block the event.
Youngkin went beyond urging a unified commitment to free speech and inquiry on campus to ask the presidents to make political diversity a priority in hiring as a way to "nurture a culture that prioritizes civil discourse and debate, both inside and outside the classroom."
"This framework and accompanying toolkit of emerging best practices, policies and protocols should address annual faculty, staff, and student training, approaches to prioritize the hiring of staff and faculty with diverse political perspectives, support of events and forums to model the exchange of ideas from different perspectives in a civil and productive manner, the set of non-negotiables that will not be tolerated on our campuses, and other steps to further these fundamental freedoms on our campuses," he wrote.
National Review, a conservative political magazine based in New York, published a statement on Thursday called "America's Crisis of Self-Doubt" that proclaims the United States "under assault," especially on college campuses.
"Our educational system, from kindergarten through graduate school, is increasingly a forum for crude propagandizing," says the statement signed by 60 prominent conservatives, including former Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, both appointed by President Donald Trump.
James Ceaser, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, was among the signers of the statement, which also included Elliott Abrams, a former national security official under three Republican presidents, and Karl Rove, a Republican political consultant and former senior adviser to President George W. Bush.
Larry Sabato, president of the Center for Politics at UVA, said: "This has become dogma on the right, and that's what Youngkin is feeding into."
Sabato said he doesn't object to most of the governor's stated goals in the letter, but questioned the need to impose a sweeping new framework on colleges and universities that already are addressing the issue.
"I can only speak for one place, but where's the problem?" he asked. "What's the problem we're trying to solve?
Sabato, who just finished teaching his 88th semester at his alma mater, publicly supported Pence's appearance at UVA on April 12 at Old Cabell Hall in the heart of the historic campus.
He and Ceaser signed a statement of support for the former vice president's scheduled appearance, which The Cavalier Daily, the student-run newspaper, had opposed.
Sabato said he hosted Pence and Richard Cullen, Youngkin's general counsel, in his private garden and introduced the former vice president to a packed audience. "There was not one single catcall, much less incident," he said.
Youngkin covered a wide range of issues in his letter to the college and university presidents, after thanking them for leading their institutions through "one of the most trying and disruptive eras in our education system" because of the pandemic that temporarily closed campuses across the state.
"These past two years have had a serious negative impact on mental health, academic achievement, social and emotional development, and sense of community," he said.
Youngkin urged the presidents to keep tuition flat and "work to lower the net cost of higher education for Virginia's students, and undertake "a tough review" of staffing, overhead coasts, academic majors and course offerings.
He made career training and credentials for high-demand jobs a priority, along with campus safety and mental health for students, faculty and staff.
Sabato said it's not unusual for a governor to assert his priorities to college and university presidents, although his primary leverage is appointments to their boards of visitors.
"A governor has that right," he said. "It's just that in implementing this, I don't know what we're supposed to do. We already do all of these things."
There are 50,000 fewer students than 10 years ago. But the G3 scholarship, which covers tuition for low- and middle-income students studying in in-demand industries, has the potential to bring them back.
The State Board for Community Colleges named a new leader on Thursday, defying Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who one day earlier called for the board to restart the hiring process and appoint an interim chancellor.