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Virginia’s new AG has made big changes at state colleges

Since taking office a few weeks ago, Virginia attorney general Jason Miyares has shaken up higher education institutions in the state.

Miyares, a Republican and former member of the Virginia Legislature, quickly replaced two college legal counsels. Soon after, he issued a legal opinion opposing college vaccine mandates, causing institutions across the state to roll back their student vaccination requirements. He also introduced a policy that will reduce collection fees on overdue student loans.

Miyares removed Tim Heaphy, former counsel for the University of Virginia, and Brian Walther, former counsel for George Mason University, just days after he was inaugurated. Heaphy and Walther are both Democrats. Heaphy—who was hired in 2018 under former Virginia attorney general Mark Herring—is currently assisting with the investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol.

Victoria LaCivita, a spokesperson for Miyares, told The Washington Post that Heaphy’s hire was “controversial.”

“Our decision was made after reviewing the legal decisions made over the last couple of years,” LaCivita said. “The attorney general wants the university counsel to return to giving legal advice based on law, and not the philosophy of a university. We plan to look internally first for the next lead counsel.”

Miyares recently appointed Anne Gentry, an associate university counsel at George Mason, to serve as interim university counsel. Gentry, who has worked at George Mason for 15 years, is married to Kevin Gentry, a Republican fundraiser who made campaign contributions to Miyares and Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin, Higher Ed Dive reported. Kevin Gentry works for Koch Industries, which donated $5,000 to Miyares’s campaign last year and $10,000 to Youngkin’s, as well as $50,000 to Youngkin’s inauguration committee.

“I am grateful for Anne’s continued service to Mason, and I look forward to our continued partnership,” Gregory Washington, president of George Mason, said in a statement about Anne Gentry’s appointment. He added that Walther “has conducted himself in a professional manner and done an excellent job at Mason.”

LaCivita told Inside Higher Ed that “it is common practice for an incoming administration to appoint new staff that share the philosophical and legal approach of the attorney general,” but the speed with which Miyares dismissed the two counsels is unusual, said James Tierney, former attorney general of Maine. Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, also said Miyares’s move to replace the counsels was unusually quick.

The routine practice of Virginia attorneys general appointing new university counsels dates back to the 1990s, when the former attorney general Jim Gilmore had all university counsels reapply for their jobs after he took office, Gastañaga said. Prior to that, universities typically conducted their own national searches for the roles, and the attorney general signed off on their decision. However, most turnovers happen over time, not days into the attorney general’s term, she said.

Shortly after firing Heaphy and Walther, Miyares issued an advisory legal opinion stating that colleges and universities could not require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to attend, reversing an opinion Herring issued last year.

“One could ask the question: Was he trying to soften the ground for this opinion and not have a debate about its validity?” Gastañaga said. “I think that’s a legitimate question to ask, given the sequence of events.”

Asked directly whether Miyares dismissed Heaphy and Walther so that he would not receive pushback on the vaccine mandate opinion, LaCivita said no.

Gastañaga said Miyares’s actions reminded her of the former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, who issued a legal opinion in 2010 that told universities to remove sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as protected classes in their nondiscrimination policies. Cuccinelli was at odds with Virginia’s public colleges and universities throughout his term, at one point taking legal action against Michael E. Mann, then a climate researcher at the University of Virginia, and dozens of other climate scientists.

As to whether Miyares will have a similar relationship with higher education institutions in the state, Gastañaga believes it’s too soon to say.

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