What if the attorney general issued an opinion and no one paid attention?
That's what Virginia's public colleges and universities are considering in the wake of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's legal opinion last week that the state's institutions of higher learning cannot ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Cuccinelli, a social conservative, issued the opinion after the General Assembly killed a bill last week extending anti-discrimination protection to gay state workers. The previous two governors had included such protection in executive orders, but Gov. Bob McDonnell has refused to follow suit.
Most public colleges have formal anti-discrimination policies. Many are reviewing their policies and will let their governing boards make final calls, depending on how much legal weight an opinion carries. “We're studying it now and the board has the final say,” says Pamela Lepley, a spokeswoman for Virginia Commonwealth University.
It's not clear what happens if colleges buck Cuccinelli. “Bigger schools like [the University of Virginia] that have the backing of their alumni might be able to do it, but smaller ones like Norfolk State might have a hard time,” says Charles Ford, a Norfolk State history professor and head of a national study committee on diversity for the American Association of University Professors.
Going against the attorney general could result in the state denying funding to the colleges and universities, he says.
Another big issue is whether private grants and foundations, most of which insist on protection for gays, will refuse to fund Virginia projects, he says.
Meanwhile, Cuccinelli's advice has had a “chilling effect” on Virginia's national reputation, says the professors' association director of external relations, Martin Snyder.
Chuck James, a Cuccinelli spokesman, declines to comment.