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Posts Tagged ‘William and Mary’

Virginia AG Dives Head-First into Culture Wars, Hits Cement

March 8th, 2010 1 comment

I might have been writing about William and Mary’s basketball team, which will play for the CAA championship this evening. But instead, I’m constrained to talk about something disturbing involving my alma mater, and the state’s schools more generally.

A few days ago, I reported on the rumor that Virginia’s new Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, had commanded the state’s universities to rescind their policies that prohibited discrimination against gays and lesbians. No one would talk.

Well, in an article that reminds us of the continuing vitality of and need for the mainstream media, the Washington Post obtained a copy of the letter and reported the story on Saturday. It does indeed “advise” the state’s schools to withdraw the policies, which he acknowledges are “benign.” This is one of the worst moves by a public official since — never mind, there are too many to choose from.

The letter never should have been written. The law isn’t as clear as Cuccinelli says it is. The cases in which the AG has found that such policies exceed the state’s authority involved municipalities or, in one infamous case, the Governor’s Office (when Gov. McDonnell was AG, he opined that Gov. Kaine had exceeded his authority with an Executive Order extending non-discrimination protection to gays and lesbians). None of them involved a university, and for good reason.

Although the state’s universities are of course “public institutions,” they’re not like municipalities, or state agencies, and everyone knows that. As even Cuccinelli recognizes in the letter, they enjoy a certain necessary amount of autonomy. But that autonomy isn’t only granted to allow the school to carry out its day-to-day functions; it’s also a recognition that universities need a certain freedom to act in order to flourish. Cuccinelli is right to say that they can’t contravene the General Assembly, but supplementing the state’s anti-discrimination policy isn’t the same thing as contravening it. In other words, he puts the burden in entirely the wrong place: If the Commonwealth of Virginia feels that it wants to put itself out there on the issue, it should be required to pass a law specifically stating that universities within the state system may not offer protection based on sexual orientation. (Update: A former governor and AG of Virginia, Gerald Baililes, agrees with me.) Presumably, even the newly red-again state isn’t stupid enough to do that. In the silence, the current list of protected classes should be regarded as a floor, not a ceiling — a floor on which the universities may build further protections, both to affirm their basic commitment to equality and — more practically — to attract the most qualified professors, administrators, staff, and students.

This will quickly turn into a PR nightmare for the state. Most of the members of the universities’ governing boards are staying mum for now, as they figure out what to do. But at least one member of George Mason’s Board of Visitors — a Republican, by the way — called the action “reprehensible.” Senator Mark Warner stated that Cuccinelli’s action will “damage the Commonwealth’s reputation for academic excellence and diversity.” A student at Old Dominion University opined that we’ll see “the gamut” of protests on this one. He’s right, I’d imagine — and hope.

None of this can penetrate the true believers’ thick skulls. One spokesman for the Family Foundation said: “I find it hard to believe that this would be the final straw in whether or not someone’s going to come to Virginia’s universities…They are some of the best universities in the country.”

Well, part of the reason for their excellence is their refusal to accede to paleolithic principles, even if the Commonwealth lags behind. And here’s a counterexample on the “final straw” argument: Me.

When I was down to the final, difficult decision about whether to attend William and Mary or Brown University — a close and difficult call — had this issue come to my attention, I would have chosen Brown. And if William and Mary and the other state universities (where “state university” is defined as a school that gets 14% of its operating budget, and none of its endowment from the state) continues to get slapped around by the state in this way, the entire state will be off my daughters’ list of college possibilities. So, there.

Even McDonnell wisely avoided addressing this issue directly when he was AG. Cuccinelli should have done the same, but apparently he’s determined to take down his own party and to make the state a place of last choice for anyone who cares about basic equality. The opinion isn’t self-executing, though. Let’s see whether the universities’ boards have the cojones to resist.

Virginia’s Slide into the Dark Ages Continues Apace

March 1st, 2010 No comments

First, Va. Reactionary-in-Moderate’s-Clothing Governor Bob McDonnell issued an executive order pointedly omitting sexual orientation from the list of permitted grounds for firing state employees. In so doing, he rescinded the earlier order from his predecessor, Gov. Tim Kaine. To be clear, that means that the state can: Ask interviewees for state positions if they’re gay; refuse to hire them on that basis; and fire those discovered to be gay. This should have surprised no one; as Attorney General, McDonnell had opposed the previous executive orders, finding that the the governor’s office had no authority to extend protections not afforded by the legislature. (Never mind that this sort of executive order offering protections against sexual-orientation discrimination are common and rarely questioned; they can at least state the policy of the executive office, even if they can’t grant rights to enforcement.)

Now, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has reportedly asked Virginia state schools, including my alma mater (William and Mary) to overturn policies barring sexual-orientation discrimination, invoking the same “no authority” argument. What is going on here? The AG surely has actual issues to deal with, and anyway can’t expect that the College is going to rescind its policy, or to start discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. But the developments are just weird enough to have inspired a state senator in neighboring Maryland to have urged local corporation Northrup Grumman not to relocate to Virginia. Here is the letter, which also mentions that McDonnell and Cuccinelli rejected a request from a consortium of the major state universities (including W&M and UVA) to allow for health benefits of same-sex partners even if the employees paid for those benefits in full.

Although a corporation responsible to its shareholders for the bottom line will focus on a number of economic climate issues in deciding where to locate, nothing would make my day more than for Northrup Grumman to choose either Maryland or D.C., and, for good measure, cite the increasingly gay-hating policies of Virginia as a reason for doing so. Maybe the loss of business is actually something they’d understand.

One more thing: It’s particularly outrageous for the state to be  so heavy-handed towards its universities when it’s cut funding for them to the bone. According to this story from a few months ago, the percentage of William and Mary’s operating budget that comes from the state has dropped, over the past thirty years, from 43% to 14%. And the cuts, they just keep on comin’. That same article explained that the College was going to have to rebalance its budget in Draconian ways because of:

“a 15%, or $6.2 million, reduction in state support, announced in September 2009 for the current fiscal year ending in June 2010.  This was the most recent in a series of state reductions in operating support for the College as the state wrestles with balancing its own budget.  Since April 2008, William & Mary has seen its state support permanently reduced by a total of $16.7 million, or 32%.”

Well, things are tough all over, as they say. But faculty salaries at the school have become an embarrassment, strong in-state high school students are being rejected in favor of higher-revenue-paying out-of-staters…and now this. The College should start thinking about a way to go completely private. Otherwise, they’ll continue to get less and less, and pay — in reputation, at least — more and more. Let the state keep its 14%-and-falling.

More on William and Mary’s Trans-Line

October 24th, 2009 1 comment

Judging from the origin of incoming traffic, many people looking for further information on gender-queer Jessee Vasold,  who was honored earlier today as William and Mary’s Homecoming Queen, found last night’s post. This is just a quick nudge to go the school’s paper, The Flat Hat, to read the full range of comments the story has, er, engendered.

You’ll find some anger, but more compassion, understanding, and even humor. There’s useful information there, too: One reader writes that Old English had a gender-neutral pronoun (“hir”), which would surely come in handy in cases like this, where Vasold’s request for gender-neutral pronouns produced some amount of distracting ridicule.

Many of my friends, especially from the swim team, were on hand for this year’s Homecoming. I’m going to find out how important and discussed this whole issue was for those in attendance, and I’ll report back. If anyone has any insights, please pass them along to me. (For example, one reader commented to my earlier post that my wish for parade-goers’ mouths to be agape would  likely not be fulfilled, because Jessee is very convincing as a woman.)    

More Fun with the Trans-Line: William and Mary Students Elect a Gender-Queer as Homecoming Queen

October 23rd, 2009 4 comments

A friend and fellow William and Mary alum emailed me earlier today, responding to my earlier post on the scariness of messing with the gender line, and informing me that our alma mater had just elected a self-identified gender-queer as Homecoming Queen. Read all about it, right here in the school’s daily paper, The Flat Hat.

The student, one Jessee Vasold, is apparently a biological male who prefers not to identify as of either gender, but whose gender is nonetheless seen as sufficiently female for the students to have picked “zir” (the pronoun Vasold prefers to “him” or  “her”) as Queen, not King.

Go, Tribe! The students, who apparently only regained the right to cast direct votes for these silly positions this year, likely have the governing Board of Visitors in a tizzy, already thinking about how they can prevent a similar trans-gression from taking place again. (Go to the Board’s site, and you’ll find men with III’s after their names — which, if I had to guess, wouldn’t usually be a number associated with much trans-contact. On the other hand, Bruce Hornsby’s wife (an alumna) is also a member.)

Oh, to be present at tomorrow’s Homecoming parade! Atop all of the parade watchers’ smart outfits, mouths will yawn agape and eyes will pop, cartoon-style, out of their sockets, as the college-donation-stopping Vasold floats past. (One commenter on the Flat Hat’s site made this point — angrily — about the spigot shutting off. I think, though, that most alums will get over it.)

Were the students being supportive, or ironic? Both, I’d say, but the whole thing is delightfully performative in the wise-guy tradition that I found appealing as a student. (Jon Stewart is the contemporary example of a W&M-educated smart aleck, but he has nothing on Thomas Jefferson, the Know-it-All who mooned the College by founding the competing UVA.) If you can’t send up Homecoming, what can you have fun with?