A few days ago Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s new conservative Republican attorney general, “advised the state’s public colleges that they don’t have the authority to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, saying only the General Assembly has that power,” producing a stampede of criticism not only from the usual suspects but also others who are not reflexively anti-Republican.
On March 9th, the Washington Post reported:
More than 3,000 people joined the Facebook page We Don’t Want Discrimination In Our State Universities And Colleges! Nearly 1,000 people joined another, started by activists at the College of William and Mary. The University of Virginia group Queer & Allied Activism urged students to protest on Cuccinelli’s Facebook page and on Twitter.
Students at Virginia Commonwealth University, one of the few in the state not on break, planned a rally for noon Wednesday, with several hundred students committed. At Christopher Newport University, student Republican and Democratic leaders will discuss their next steps at a bipartisan meeting Friday.
“I’ve never gotten so many e-mails from students wanting to do something,” said Brandon Carroll, 21, president of the student government at Virginia Tech. He said any erosion in gay rights at state universities is “going to make us lose top students. It’s going to make us lose top faculty.”
And, the Post reports, not just students were agitated:
A growing number of industry leaders have also lined up against the directive from Cuccinelli (R), some portraying it as a threat to the quality and competitiveness of Virginia’s higher-education system. …
Leaders of academia attacked the state directive on several fronts. The head of the Virginia conference of the American Association of University Professors wrote in a letter to the governor that any discrimination not grounded in qualification or merit “is abhorrent to the values of higher education.”
Public universities generally are afforded autonomy by state governments in writing policy, said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. Virginia state code, however, is “somewhat vague” on who makes the rules, said Kirsten Nelson, spokeswoman for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. …
Robert M. O’Neil, former president of U-Va. and now director of the school’s Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said in an e-mail, “it is far from clear that the Attorney General would be expected to or even empowered to turn back the clock on such a vital issue of public importance,” noting that the state’s higher-education community is “unanimous in its commitment to equality.”
What a royal, stupid, unnecessary mess, as John Farrell noted in U.S. News & World Report:
When the Republicans in Virginia staged a comeback last fall, they did so by persuading independent voters that the GOP had given up its desire to police our bedrooms, and would focus instead on pragmatic solutions for serious issues, like the dearth of jobs, the cost of education and the surplus of traffic. Here was the model for a Republican resurgence in 2010, the wise guys in Washington said.
But the paint wasn’t dry in the office of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II before he jumped at the chance to indulge in gay-bashing. He dashed off a letter to the state’s colleges and universities, telling them to rescind their policies that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Now, some may regard this as a minor point and others may regard it as irrelevant, but before saying more I should point out that Cuccinelli’s legal argument may in fact be correct. It is not at all clear that Virginia’s public colleges do have the legal authority to go beyond state law in banning various forms of discrimination.
According to the Washington Post:
[s]ome lawmakers called Cuccinelli’s stand consistent with legal opinions offered by past attorneys general, who have advised local governments that they do not have the legal right to add sexual orientation to their policies without authorization from the General Assembly.
But legalities aside, even if Cuccinelli is correct on the law, that doesn’t mean he should have charged ahead provoking a public firestorm on a controversial social issue, especially after the Republican ticket headed by newly elected Gov. Bob McDonnell had studiously avoided social issues in the campaign. If Cuccinelli had revealed an intention to tell colleges they could not prohibit discrimination against gays there’s a chance neither he nor even Gov. McDonnell would have been elected.