Publication Date

April 8, 2015

In late November, chairs of departments around the Commonwealth of Virginia received notice that we had to complete “conflict of interest” disclosure forms to the state. Certain other state employees had already been required to submit these forms, but a new executive order issued by Governor Terry McAuliffe vastly extended the list of the positions to which the disclosure requirement applied. The forms require us to identify immediate family members, declare any unsecured loans over a certain dollar amount, identify any securities or investment in a company (including mutual funds), real estate, gifts in excess of a relatively modest amount, and payments over $200 for presenting a talk or like service for ourselves and our immediate family members. We soon learned that not only did we have to submit this information but that it would be publicly available to anyone who asked to see it. We had three weeks to submit the forms. A few days later, William & Mary’s administration announced that directors of interdisciplinary programs were also subject to the disclosure, and that principal investigators administering grants might also be included as well.

At William & Mary, this issue went right to the top of the agenda at the next meeting of the chairs and program directors. The dean of the faculty and the university counsel visited, both basically warning that we had no recourse but to sign or resign our leadership positions. At least half a dozen chairs and directors were considering resigning. After the dean and attorney left, we discussed our options, including writing a collective op-ed, contacting the ACLU, and reaching out to chairs at other Virginia schools. Although some chairs drafted an op-ed, we decided at a later meeting to agitate more discreetly, fearing that if we brought public attention to the issue we’d only encourage people to request the disclosure forms already submitted by other state employees. We agreed instead to try lobbying our state representatives and to get our own legal advice.

A similar story unfolded at the University of Virginia. Many chairs tried individually to engage the governor’s aides, who had written the new regulations. Failing in that effort, UVA’s Council of Chairs and Directors turned to Ian Baucom, the new dean of arts and sciences. After giving the chairs’ concerns a sympathetic hearing, he took the matter to UVA’s president, whose staff joined a rapidly intensifying but quiet effort statewide to lobby the governor’s office and state legislators.

The American Historical Association’s Communities forum for chairs proved indispensable. History department chairs throughout the state, many of whom had not noticed the e-mail informing them of the disclosure requirement, were alerted to the issue and began communicating. Moreover, history chairs around the country shared information about whether they were subjected to a similar disclosure policy (few were, and only chairs in Virginia had to worry about their finances being made public).

Armed with that information, we met with our state delegates, who asked excellent questions and were very sympathetic. We explained that while we thought the governor’s policy was well intended, it likely included many state officials (chairs among them) who lacked discretion over the budgets they administered. We noted that some chairs administer budgets of just a few thousand dollars. Others administered budgets in the hundreds of thousands. Either way, we have very little control over how the money gets spent. The car rental companies we use, the office supply companies we patronize, even the source of any furniture we need to buy is all prescribed by state authorities. We might have discretion over small matters—such as which caterer we hired for an event—but even if we used that discretion to, say, throw a catering contract to a cousin or friend’s company, that favoritism wouldn’t be revealed by the disclosure form. No one seemed to benefit from knowing what mutual fund company we use and how much we earn in speaker fees. James Grossman, the executive director of the AHA, and Philippa Levine, vice president of the AHA Professional Division, wrote an excellent letter to Governor McAuliffe, explaining why it was inappropriate to require university chairs to disclose their finances.

These discussions paid off. Two weeks ago, Virginia’s General Assembly passed the final version of the Ethics bill, which includes the following language:

H. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, chairs of departments at a public institution of higher education in the Commonwealth shall not be required to file the disclosure form prescribed by 1156 § 2.2-3117 or 2.2-3118. 

This law goes into effect in July. It’s not clear how it will be reconciled with the governor’s executive order or whether we will have to fill out the disclosure form again in the meantime (they are currently required twice a year), but we’re clearly moving in the right direction.

Cindy Hahamovitch
Class of ’38 Professor of History and Chair
Lyon G. Tyler Department of History
College of William & Mary

Paul D. Halliday
Julian Bishko Professor of History & Professor of Law and Chair
Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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