An unusual war of words has broken out between Virginia Commonwealth University and one of its own schools over the validity of public opinion polling that criticized the university for a costly failed project.
The public relations duel started after the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs surveyed Virginians, as part of its long-running Commonwealth Poll series, about their thoughts on reports that the VCU Health System paid $73 million to exit a failed Richmond development project. (In May, L. Douglas Wilder—the school’s namesake, a Distinguished Professor at the school and Virginia’s governor in the early 1990s—called for firing VCU president Michael Rao over that situation, and Wilder previously sued Rao over a different matter.)
VCU News, the university’s central PR arm, posted on its website Monday a news release from the Wilder School reporting the survey’s findings. A VCU News spokesperson said in an email that the release was further “distributed to multiple reporters at 57 local, state and national news outlets, as per our normal procedures with the Commonwealth Poll.”
The headline of that release was “92% of those familiar with VCU Health development deal want answers from the VCU Health System board.”
The release goes on to say that, of those familiar with the failed deal, “65 percent agreed that these events indicate that information about the deal has been concealed and kept from the public.” Wilder himself is quoted, saying that the poll results “indicate the need for an official investigation by the state” and that it’s “inconceivable why there has been no investigation by the state at this point when the facts speak for themselves.”
Respondents were also asked, according to the release, “whether they think there was a cover-up.”
But—before the release goes on to mention the Commonwealth Poll’s latest results on the current governor’s approval rating and other matters—there’s a “University Note,” including a link to a VCU statement about the poll.
“The university is dedicated to supporting academic freedom, even in instances in which it disagrees with content,” that statement says. “In this case, the Jan. 22, 2024, VCU Wilder School Commonwealth Poll’s questions about VCU Health produced results that are skewed.”
This rebuttal statement calls the sampling size for the VCU Health questions “questionable,” saying the sample was about “100 people, and often fewer.” The poll had 812 total respondents, and many more did respond to other survey questions compared to the VCU Health items. Only 65 respondents said “yes” to the question “Are you familiar with the reports released earlier this year about the incomplete VCU Health development deal for building a new facility in downtown Richmond?”
“Additionally, the questions, for some reason, lack full context about the issue, unfortunately preventing respondents from making informed choices,” the statement says. “Anyone who reads the poll should closely scrutinize its methodology and conclusions. In reality, VCU Health has broadly shared the circumstances, facts and outcomes about the Clay Street [VCU Health] project, including the two independent, external reviews it commissioned.”
On Tuesday, the Wilder School released a statement criticizing Rao and Michael Porter, VCU’s associate vice president for public affairs, for the VCU News statement criticizing the Commonwealth Poll.
“VCU administration negates Virginians’ voices, maligns Wilder School Commonwealth Poll credibility in conflict of interest over failed VCU Health development deal” was the headline of the counterpunch. The “conflict of interest” exists “because the overwhelming perceptions of Virginians’ [sic] of the poll draw negative attention to the failed VCU Health deal,” it added.
It called the Commonwealth Poll “a tested bellwether of public opinion” that VCU hasn’t previously challenged.
“It is a scientific and nonpartisan source respected by journalists across major radio, TV, and online media outlets,” the Wilder School said. “At no point has the methodology of the Commonwealth Poll been challenged by outside media. And at no point has the sound methodology, direction or execution of the Commonwealth Poll changed.”
The Wilder School statement further accused VCU News of delaying the release of the poll results for two days to craft the university administration’s response.
“We should not be stifled or discredited to divert attention from the compounding mistakes of the VCU administration, led by Michael Rao and carried out by Michael Porter,” the statement said.
David Slipher, the Wilder School’s director of communications and external relations, whose name is on the statement, said Wilder School dean Susan Gooden and other leaders in the school “all approved it, and it was coordinated along with them.”
Slipher said he’s not part of VCU News. When asked whether he’s now worried for his job, he said, “I don’t have any comment on that.”
Wilder, the former governor and current professor, didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Porter didn’t return Inside Higher Ed’s request for an interview Tuesday. A VCU News spokesperson answered some emailed questions but not others and did not provide an interview with any university leader Tuesday.