|Tuesday, April 08, 2003
Virginia Tech board held last-ditch plea to halt vote
|Because split votes were thought to be a thing of the past, the board's 8-5 vote to rescind a ban on affirmative action was unusual, one member said.
By KEVIN MILLER
THE ROANOKE TIMES
Moments before adjourning their historic meeting Sunday, Virginia Tech Board of Visitors members heard a last-ditch plea to delay an up-or-down vote on a controversial ban of race-conscious policies at the university.
Member Mitchell Carr asked his colleagues to work out a compromise in the coming months and - in keeping with tradition - present a united front on the issue.
But this time around, member T. Rodman Layman made it clear he wasn't interested in cohesiveness.
"I think it's high time we started speaking our own minds on this board and quit trying to seek unanimity," Layman responded. The crowd of more than 200 spectators roared with approval.
The reversal by Virginia Tech's Board of Visitors on Sunday was significant not only for its policy implications, but also because of its potential to change the way the board operates.
While not unprecedented, the board's 8-5 vote to rescind a ban on affirmative action and restore protections for homosexuals was extremely unusual, at least in recent history. Board rector John Rocovich said afterward that he could not recall any split votes on resolutions during either his six years on the board or his wife's eight-year tenure on the board before him.
Paul Torgersen also could not remember any split votes during his tenure as Tech president from 1994 to 2000.
"I can recall serious discussion, but never a final vote that was not unanimous," said Torgersen.
But these were not typical issues.
Board members unleashed a firestorm March 10 when they voted unanimously after closed-door discussion to prohibit consideration of race, gender, ethnicity, veteran's status and other personal traits during the admissions, hiring and financial aid processes. Even top administrators and some board members later said they were surprised by the resolution, which was not on the board's agenda.
During the same vote, the board deleted "sexual orientation" from the university's nondiscrimination clause - a move that brought Tech into line with state law but put it at odds with hundreds of other universities.
Board members had the complete backing of state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, who has warned colleges against making race a determining factor during admissions or financial aid. Kilgore's office said colleges can consider race under some "narrowly tailored" policies, but warned school officials that both the university and individual board members could be liable if those policies violate federal law.
Almost instantly, the board's new policies were denounced by many students, faculty and such advocacy groups as the Virginia NAACP. Gov. Mark Warner also chided the board for not waiting for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on racial preferences in college admissions and for not being more public.
Since then, Warner and his staff worked quietly with the Tech administration to sway the board in their favor. Kilgore and his staff, meanwhile, vigorously defended the decision as constitutionally sound. Both sides deny any arm-twisting or pressuring.
"The administration saw its role as one of providing useful information and legal analysis on the range of options available to the Virginia Tech board," said Warner spokesman Kevin Hall.
"From the very beginning, it's been about one thing - the law," Kilgore spokesman Tim Murtaugh said Sunday night.
In the end, all of Warner's appointees to the board - Ben Davenport, John Lawson, Tom Robertson and NFL star Bruce Smith - voted to rescind. They were joined by Layman, Beverly Sgro, Jacob Lutz and Philip Thompson of Richfield. Rocovich and four other members - Mitchell Carr, Donald Johnson, William Latham and Ronald Petera - voted to keep the policy in place.
Layman said he hopes the experience will encourage the board to be more open, deliberative and "independent-minded" in its decisions. The board also approved a policy guaranteeing members at least three days to review proposed resolutions and policy changes.
Rocovich predicted that all board members - regardless of how they voted Sunday - will now support the decision to look into "narrowly tailored" policies allowing the university to pursue underrepresented groups without violating federal laws.
"Once the board makes the decision on its policy, then all 14 members of the board will move forward with their commitment to carry out the policy that the board has articulated," Rocovich said.