RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Democrats criticized Gov. Glenn Youngkin over a letter he sent to the state’s community college board calling for its members to involve his administration in the search for a new chancellor or resign.
Hours after a group of state lawmakers denounced the letter Wednesday, a key member of Virginia’s community college board said its search committee would welcome a representative of Youngkin’s administration to serve as a non-voting member.
“We are committed to working with the governor and his team on the search for the new Chancellor who will lead Virginia’s Community Colleges in the coming years, and we will work to ensure that our programs remain affordable to all Virginians,” Douglas Garcia, the incoming board chair and chair of the chancellor search committee, said in a statement.
Gov. Youngkin has expressed frustration with the board’s hiring process for months, claiming a lack of transparency and pushing for more involvement for his office.
The board had to relaunch the search for a new chancellor after its pick to succeed the retiring Glenn Dubois, Russell Kavalhuna, opted not to take the role and agreed to remain the president of Henry Ford College in Michigan.
Current board chair Nathaniel Bishop said the community college board was “disappointed” and Kavalhuna said in a statement on June 30 that circumstances out of his control led him to return to Henry Ford College. He declined 8News’ interview request.
“Due to circumstances beyond my control, the VCCS path closed, and it is clear that Michigan and Henry Ford College are where my devotion to student success can make the most difference,” Kavalhuna’s statement read in part. “I remain enthusiastic and encouraged about Michigan’s bi-partisan focus on student success.”
Democrats who held a virtual press conference Wednesday pointed to Youngkin’s disapproval of being shut out of the hiring process, and a meeting between the governor and Kavalhuna the month before the community college board was told on June 13 that Kavalhuna would remain in Michigan.
“I think the press needs to ask some questions about exactly what was said and what was asked during that meeting that caused this new person to just quit a job that he had just negotiated a brand new contract to leave Michigan for,” state Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said. “The governor said something to him, it wasn’t nice. And I think we all need to know, I think taxpayers and the 218,000 students in the system deserve to know what the governor said to that man that caused him to quit his job.”
In a letter to the board days after Kavalhuna’s decision, Youngkin shared goals for Virginia’s 23 community colleges and qualities he feels a new leader would need to oversee his vision.
“The race for talent is on,” Youngkin wrote in the June 17 letter. “Nothing is more important to the future strength and agility of our workforce than hiring a strong, proven, results-oriented leader who will build a best-in-class community college system.”
Youngkin added that he knows the final decision on a new chancellor “rests with the VCCS Board,” but that his administration is “excited and eager” to work with the board to find a new leader as soon as possible.
“As we start a new fiscal year on July 1st, I earnestly ask you to fully commit to this challenge and opportunity,” Youngkin’s letter reads. “Transformation is hard work — this takes time, energy, focus and commitment. If for any reason you feel like you cannot commit to this mission, I will accept your resignation by June 30th with gratitude for your service.”
Youngkin was not made available for an interview and his office did not answer specific questions about the letter, but a statement from the governor was provided to 8News.
“I’ve expressed to every member of the board that I have really high expectations for our community college system. And our community college system is critical to developing the kinds of academic opportunities and workforce development opportunities that the Commonwealth needs,” Youngkin said in the statement. “If the members of the board are eager to lead and serve with that vision – then great. This is all about mission alignment and making sure we have agreement on where this community college system needs to go.”
When asked whether there was any other evidence besides the June 17 letter that Youngkin is looking to replace board members or demanding they resign if the board doesn’t include his administration in the hiring process, Democrats cited other letters that the governor sent to board members.
“The governor also sent two other letters before this. In those prior letters, he pointed out, he said he claimed to the board that their failure to include him in the hiring process constituted misfeasance,” Sen. Surovell said. “And the reason the use of that word is important is because the statute that allows the governor to remove board members uses the word misfeasance.”
The governor nominates members to state boards each year, but can only remove them for “malfeasance, misfeasance, incompetence, misconduct, neglect of duty, absenteeism, conflict of interests, failure to carry out the policies of the Commonwealth as established in the Constitution or by the General Assembly.”
State board members can also be removed by the governor for refusing to carry out “a lawful directive,” according to Virginia code.
The group of Virginia Democrats, which included state senators and delegates, said they were seeking clarification from the governor about what has taken place over the last few months, the changes he wants the board to undertake and whether he is asking members to resign if they don’t commit to including his administration in the chancellor search.
The State Board for Community Colleges, the governing body of the Virginia Community College System, has 15 members who can be appointed by the governor for up to two four-year terms.
The terms of three board members are up, which means Youngkin can nominate their replacements. But the governor’s picks are dependent upon the approval of the Virginia General Assembly. On Wednesday, state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said Democrats could block Youngkin’s nominees if he takes action on the board.
The Democratic lawmakers acknowledged that community colleges are facing several issues, but noted that the concerns are not exclusive to those in the Commonwealth.
“Community colleges are struggling but these are not just Virginia community colleges that are struggling. We have seen significant declines in enrollment in community colleges across the country,” state Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) said during Wednesday’s press conference. “We’re also seeing enrollment declines in higher education and there’s many, many factors that are playing a role in those kinds of concerns.”
Sen. Hashmi cited the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s student debt crisis, calling criticism of Virginia’s community college system from the Youngkin administration “very unfair.”
Surovell pointed to a decline in birth rates, saying there are fewer people in the 18 to 24 age group. “It’s a demographic phenomenon, it has nothing to do with the system,” he said Wednesday.
Dr. Sharon Morrissey will serve as interim chancellor when DuBois retires at the end of June.
Update: This story has been updated with President Kavalhuna’s statement from June 30, which came after publication.