Gov. Bob McDonnell will appoint at least two new members to Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors this spring, potentially adding a conservative tilt to the board just months after the university faced the highly charged issue of sexual orientation and discrimination protection.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s March 5 letter advised Virginia’s public universities to remove protections based on sexual orientation from their non-discrimination policies to comply with Virginia law, saying authorization to add protection would require approval from the Virginia General Assembly.
The current BOV did not act on Cuccinelli’s recommendation of removing discrimination protection based on sexual orientation. However, this isn’t the first time Tech has grappled with discrimination policies.
In 2003, the board complied with a suggestion from then-Attorney General Jerry Kilgore to ban affirmative action. Following a month of public outcry, the university administration called an emergency BOV meeting, and the decision was reversed.
Now, the rector of the 2003 board, Roanoke lawyer John Rocovich, could be a potential candidate to rejoin the board as McDonnell makes his first appointments later this spring.
Rocovich, a Blacksburg native who has a history of providing major financial backing for both the university and the Republican Party, left the board when his term expired in 2005, after he served the maximum continuous term of eight years.
Under the BOV bylaws, there is no reason Rocovich could not return to the board if he were appointed, since it has been more than one year since his last term of service.
While serving on the BOV, Rocovich’s financial influence benefited the university. Two notable projects completed during his 1997-2005 term were the construction of ICTAS and the Edward Via School of Osteopathic Medicine.
“I’d been serving on a sort of study committee since the middle ‘90s, so we finally got that ICTAS started while I was on the board and that’s a very instrumental part of a major research institution,” Rocovich said.
He was also involved in the process of Tech’s admission to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“I was very fortunate to serve on the board in a period of time when we were able to start a lot of new initiatives and do a lot of things that I think helped to propel the school forward. And we, for the most part, had a pretty aggressive board that was far-seeing,” Rocovich said.
Rocovich also spread his financial assets to the Virginia Republican Party.
According to the Virginia Public Access project, Rocovich contributed a total of $63,000 to McDonnell’s campaigns for attorney general and governor between 1996 and 2009, including $53,000 for travel expenses during both campaigns.
“I admire the governor greatly,” Rocovich said. “He, in my mind, has all the right stuff to be perhaps the best governor we’ve ever had. I’m a great supporter of his, and he’s certainly a very able and sensible, capable man.”
Rocovich had also been a strong supporter of Kilgore. He donated a total of $53,850 to Kilgore’s various political campaigns for both attorney general and governor between 1996 and 2009, $10,850 of that before 2003. During his run for governor, Rocovich paid $40,000 of Kilgore’s travel expenses.
Although Rocovich expressed his enthusiasm for Tech and noted that he enjoyed his time on the BOV in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, he said he has not currently been contacted by representatives from either Tech or McDonnell’s office about serving on the board in the future, or about serving on any type of selection committee for future board members.
The current status of the governor’s decision-making process is unknown. A brief statement from McDonnell’s office to the Collegiate Times said that new board appointees would be announced “in the coming months.”
Rocovich said he doesn’t yet have any knowledge of the governor’s plans.
“The governor hasn’t approached me,” Rocovich said. “It’s a little early.”
Tom Tillar, vice president of the alumni association, acknowledged that political affiliation “typically has a strong influence” on who the governor ultimately appoints.
“There is no strict rule of thumb, but if you look across, there is a close alignment to the governor’s party,” Tillar said.
Tillar works closely with university President Charles Steger to develop the “short list” of candidates the university feels would be good potential appointees. The list will be sent to McDonnell for his consideration at the end of April.
Current rector John Lawson and member Ben Davenport have served on the board for the past eight years and cannot immediately return to board after their terms expire in June.
Members are allowed to hold two consecutive four-year terms before they must take at least one year off. Current members James Smith and Lori Wagner are both at the end of their first terms and could be reappointed for a second term in June if McDonnell chooses to do so.
Tillar said he has worked with Steger and the alumni association to develop the list of potential appointees for nearly the whole academic year.
“It can certainly be more (candidates) than the number who are leaving,” Tillar said. “That’s still in process, there will be no more than eight and it may not be that many.”
Tillar said if the university is considering a person to add to its list, it approaches the candidate for discussion before placing him or her on the list.
“That’s a list I can’t share,” Tillar said. “I can’t say that everybody’s been consulted.”
Tillar said the process is not democratic. Tech is free to advise the governor’s office of potential candidates but has no say in who is actually appointed. According to Tillar, the choice between candidates “strictly rests with the governor.”
“Usually there are appointments that are names that were not on our list,” he said.
The current BOV consists of eight members appointed by former Gov. Mark Warner between 2002 and 2005, along with six members appointed by former Gov. Tim Kaine between 2006 and 2009.
Current members who have served on the board since 2003, Ben Davenport, John Lawson, Sandra Lowe, Michael Anzilotti and James Severt, have had to deal with controversy over Tech’s discrimination policy on two separate occasions.
The current BOV did not act upon Cuccinelli’s March 5 request to remove sexual orientation from the school’s discrimination policy. Several days after Cuccinelli sent the letter, McDonnell issued a directive that stressed against engaging in discrimination in employment searches.
In a similar 2003 incident, the board had a different reaction when then-Attorney General Kilgore attempted to ban affirmative action.
Kilgore’s office sent a letter to the board, led by then-rector Rocovich, in 2002. The letter suggested that Tech discontinue the use of affirmative action when selecting employees and students and opt for “race-neutral” policies.
Instead of denying Kilgore’s request, the board attempted to comply with it.
Tillar noted that there were similarities between the situations presented to the 2003 BOV and the 2010 BOV, but that the reactions were different.
“The only difference I can find is that the recommendation was presented by the rector without any preliminary notice,” Tillar said.
The board did not address the Kilgore letter until March 2003. Then, without first placing it on the agenda of the March 10, 2003, meeting, Rocovich brought a resolution before the board that moved to create the office of equal opportunity and diversity and implement more race-neutral policies.
However, while presenting this resolution, a clause granting protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation was omitted.
The previous policy was changed in 1995 to include the sexual orientation provision.
That policy read, “Virginia Tech does not discriminate against employees, students, or applicants on the basis of race, color, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, veteran status, national origin, religion, or political affiliation.”
The statement of the new, changed policy, presented at the March 10, 2003, BOV meeting read, “the policy of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University not to discriminate on the basis of disability, age, veteran status, political affiliation, race, color, national origin, ethnicity, religious belief, or gender is hereby expressly reiterated and clarified.”
It went on to state that this policy would be applied to “the admissions or hiring process” and “awarding scholarships or other financial aid, or any other point in the financial aid process.”
This policy ended affirmative action, which had been in place at Tech for a number of years. Documentation presented to the BOV shows evidence of race-conscious recruitment of potential students from undergraduate admissions at that time, inviting African-American, Hispanic and American-Indian students to a number of special programs not open to Caucasian applicants.
Rocovich stands by his position on affirmative action.
“If I remember correctly, my position has always been that the only legitimate way to judge another human being is on merit,” Rocovich said.
Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a non-profit organization that advocates for civil rights, agreed with Rocovich’s stance on affirmative action.
“I believe it is wrong and usually illegal for a state university to discriminate on the basis of skin color or national orientation in how it treats students,” Clegg said. “There is no justification. People should be judged based on the quality of their character. Professors should be hired based on their work and students should be admitted based on their work, not what country their ancestors come from.”
Clegg, like Rocovich, believes that giving students preference based on race under affirmative action is a form of discrimination. He also said he believes that people should not be given preferential treatment based on their sexual orientation.
“I think it is inconsistent for the current Board of Visitors to be opposed to discrimination based on sexual orientation and perfectly happy on race,” Clegg said. “I don’t see any justification for that but political correctness.”
Clegg’s organization also spoke out in favor of Rocovich’s resolution in 2003.
Rocovich acknowledged his stance created backlash in the community.
“The important principle was that people ought to have hiring, promotion, tenure, admissions and important elements of the university be based purely on merit, and I think that was what generated some controversy,” Rocovich said.
The board unanimously approved the resolution, perhaps partially because they were not aware at the time of the implications of approving it, according to Tillar.
“They didn’t have advanced notice. They didn’t consider it thoroughly,” Tillar said.
Multiple student and faculty groups protested against the BOV’s resolution.
“It was a pretty tense time on campus,” said Davenport, who has served on the board since 2002.
Michael Sutphin, public relations specialist for Tech and a Blacksburg town council candidate last fall, was a freshman student when the incident occurred. He was involved with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Alliance activities campaigning against the resolution.
“One protest happened within a week of the meeting,” Sutphin said. “It attracted well over 100 students.”
Provost Mark McNamee, who has been employed by Tech for the past nine years, said the month of March 2003, was “a very challenging time.”
“It was a very unfortunate set of circumstances that developed,” McNamee said. “It was an unfortunate detour that the board took.”
After about a month, the board held an emergency meeting on April 6, 2003, to discuss the policy with David Johnson, a deputy attorney general, in front of a crowd so large that the meeting was held in the banquet room of Owens Hall instead of the usual boardroom in Torgersen Hall.
At the end of the nearly four-hour meeting, the changes were overturned by a vote of eight to five. Sexual orientation was added back into the anti-discriminatory language and “narrowly-tailored” race-conscious policies were enacted that essentially reinstated limited, legal affirmativeaction, in which race could be considered as a factor — just not as one of the main factors — for admissions or hiring.
Rocovich voted against rescinding the March resolution and continued to advocate for it. Davenport voted to rescind the resolution. Former Gov. Mark Warner did not reappoint William Latham, the vice rector at the time of the 2003 discrimination policy, after he also voted against rescinding the resolution.
Rocovich was not eligible for reappointment at the end of that term.
Additionally, a resolution was passed stating that all items up for discussion would have to be placed on the agenda at least three days in advance of the next BOV meeting.
Tech’s Principles of Community were also penned as a result of the 2003 incident in an attempt to create a campus-wide code for diversity.
“The Principles of Community were kind of a hallmark of those discussions,” Sutphin said. “We came out as a stronger community.”
The issue was quickly overshadowed by both positive conversations about diversity and a highly publicized dust-up between Tech and the Big East and Atlantic Coast sports conferences later that spring.
“The world has moved on,” Davenport said.
Rocovich said the issue had not been brought up again until Cuccinelli’s recent actions drew a parallel.
“All I know is what I saw in the paper, and I wasn’t involved with that ... but it sounded to me like Cuccinelli ruled on what the law was as to what boards and schools would and couldn’t do and the governor expressed the view that merit ought to be the determinate, not skin color, race, creed, religion,” Rocovich said. “(Cuccinelli’s letter) was about sexual orientation, I guess. It ought to be merit regardless, and that seems right to me.”
He said he respected Cuccinelli’s interpretation of the law.
“I think merit’s the only standard you ought to use, period,” Rocovich said. “So I don’t have any argument with the governor or Cuccinelli.”
Rocovich’s political history may garner him consideration for reappointment to the board. At this time, however, neither Rocovich nor the university is aware of any potential candidates that McDonnell may appoint in June.
Rocovich said that in his past experiences with former governors George Allen, Gilmore and Warner, potential new BOV members weren’t notified until a month or two before their term would begin on June 30.
“If the governor wanted you to serve, you’d hear from him about a month before,” Rocovich said.
Tillar said this first round of appointments would be a guide for how McDonnell plans to handle the next four years.
“You never know,” he said. “Generally, appointments over the last eight years have come in early July.”
Rocovich said he also was not sure of McDonnell’s selection process. He had no knowledge of whether he was a candidate for appointment.
“I don’t know what Bob’s approach will be,” he said.
Lawson said that although he had “no knowledge” if Rocovich would be reappointed, he had heard indirectly that some previous members might be returning to the board.
Sutphin said he had heard Rocovich’s name being thrown around as possibly returning to the BOV, but “right now, it’s just a rumor,” he said.
McNamee said in the nine years he has been employed at Tech, “I don’t think that anyone who’s been on has gotten to come back ... (but) everything would be on a case by case basis.”
To McNamee’s knowledge, no university officials have been informed of McDonnell’s possible actions.
“We’re just as curious as everyone else,” he said.