The University of Virginia’s Miller Center for the study of the U.S. presidency, public policy and political history likes to hire thinkers who have worked within presidential administrations, Republican and Democrat alike. Indeed, the current center roster includes faculty members and fellows who have served under each president from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama.
But some employees of the center and broader university are objecting to the appointment of a new senior fellow. Marc Short, currently President Trump’s director of legislative affairs, is scheduled to begin at Virginia next month.
Some critics of the appointment say that working closely with Trump should automatically exclude one from work at the nonpartisan Miller Center. Some don’t. Yet all critics agree that Short is unfit for work at Virginia, charging that he is too aligned with Trump on key issues -- including the president’s controversial response to the violence in surrounding Charlottesville, Va., last year.
“The university should not serve as a way station for high-level members of an administration that has directly harmed our community and to this day attacks the institutions vital to a free society” -- what the university “is meant to protect,” reads a circulating petition against Short’s appointment.
The petition, signed by faculty members at the Miller Center and in other departments, says mere “dialogue” with members of the administration isn’t the problem. Rather, it says, “we do object to the use of our university to clean up their tarnished reputations.” And no one should be serving at the highest levels of the administration, “daily supporting and defending its actions one week, than representing [Virginia] the next.”
Noting the approaching one-year anniversary of the white supremacist march on Charlottesville and murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer, the petition also says that “it is unconscionable that we would add to our university a person who served in a high-level position for the administration that first empowered, then defended, those white nationalists.”
Charlottesville is “a community still in the process of healing, and someone who defended the president’s remarks after the violence here is a barrier to that process, a source of trauma in a still-traumatized community,” reads the petition.
Defending Trump on Charlottesville?
Last August, Trump infamously blamed the violence at Charlottesville on “many sides,” and, days later, "both sides," prompting criticism that he drew a moral equivalency between white supremacists who marched on the city and counterprotesters. In between, Trump denounced racism as "evil" and white supremacists and other hate groups as "repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans." But many said his mixed messages negated those sentiments.
Asked about Trump’s tone on race in September, Short told reporters in a videotaped news conference that he believed Trump had “condemned the violence in Charlottesville and I think that he was clear and outspoken in that.”
Short said in an interview Thursday that he was referring to Trump's denunciation of racism as evil, not the president's initial reaction. "There is no moral equivalency between the sides that engaged in Charlottesville. There can be no words sufficient to condemn to white supremacy and what transpired a year ago," he said.
As for how closely his own politics align with Trump's, Short said, "My job in serving the president was to help carry out the policies of the president who was elected by 63 million Americans."
Short, a relatively long-serving Trump aide who has been an unofficial White House spokesperson, announced last week that he is leaving the administration to become a senior fellow at the Miller Center. (It’s been elsewhere reported that he will also teach at Virginia’s Darden School of Business, from which he graduated. But the school denied that Thursday, saying he has in the past served as a volunteer alumni guest speaker.) Short also will join GuidePost Strategies, a Washington consulting firm.
The Miller Center announced Short’s appointment at the same time, saying that he’ll participate in conferences and events, engage with faculty members and students across campus, and write for the center's website and its other publications.
Faculty members at the center said they were shocked by the announcement, since they typically practice a loose form of shared governance in hires. While the senior fellow designation is relatively new and distinct from faculty appointments, they said, center professors still want to have a say in who gets it.
“That’s normal academic practice,” said William Hitchcock, a Randolph P. Compton Professor at the Miller Center and professor of history. “We don’t get veto power, but we play a role and give advice." Yet in this situation, he said, "we all learned about it through an email.”
Beyond what he described as “inadequate faculty consultation,” Hitchcock said Short “doesn’t fit the values of the Miller Center. He is extremely partisan, and this is a nonpartisan scholarly institution. We examine politics here but we are not participating in any political campaigns.”
Hitchcock said the center's faculty has enthusiastically approved of visiting professorships for other conservatives, including Eric Edelman, former advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, and John Negroponte, President George W. Bush's director of national intelligence. He also said he wouldn't object outright to working with anyone from the administration. But Short has been “the president’s spokesperson on a number of issues, one of which is very important to us” -- Charlottesville.
“We’re coming up on the year anniversary of those events, and this sends a very strong message -- to embrace one of [Trump’s] most ardent defenders,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of healing to do here and this is not going to help.”
One employee of the center who did not want to identified by name or position, citing the possibility of negative professional repercussions, described the events of August 2017 as still very much “an open wound" for Charlottesville.
“It’s still very real in many ways -- we’ve had ongoing court cases and concerns surrounding the anniversary and other incidents,” the employee said. “And Short basically said that there’s nothing wrong with the way the president responded.”
Destructive vs. Disruptive, President vs. Presidency
The employee emphasized that center colleagues are generally happy to work alongside their political opposites. But the Trump administration is “qualitatively different” than its predecessors, the employee said.
“It’s not only disruptive but destructive to pillars of our democracy and we are an academic institution that’s supposed to defend those things,” the employee said. So “sanitizing and normalizing a member of that administration is not the proper role” for the center.
Center director William Antholis, who worked in the Clinton administration, took a different view. It is possible -- and essential -- to separate a president from a presidency, and a president from an administration, he said.
“More discussion about all of this is better than less,” Antholis said. “This is an appropriate appointment for us, in particular, as we study the American presidency. ...I don't think my personal views of this president should get in the way of how we study the presidency."
Noting that the center will be working on projects involving political polarization in the fall, Antholis said he couldn’t think of a “better person to help us understand how this White House works and how the current Congress works or doesn’t work" than Short.
As for the comments on Charlottesville, Antholis said he hadn’t heard what Short said and so declined comment. The violence remains serious and personal to him, however, Antholis said, recounting that he was downtown that day in August with his daughter.
Hitchcock said he didn’t expect the appointment to be rescinded. But he and others said it’s still important to make their opinions known. An impromptu town hall was held within the center this week, with about 30 employees in attendance, according to those present.
Meanwhile, opposition to Short has spread beyond just the center. A number of faculty members in other departments have signed on to the petition and have otherwise expressed their concern.
Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies at Virginia, said Thursday that any official “who has facilitated the rise of authoritarianism and the withering of the republic should not receive a plum position at [Thomas] Jefferson’s university.”
Short said it's "quite ironic that those at Thomas Jefferson’s university would not welcome diverse views. When there is silencing of thought, the ones who get hurt are the students."