youngkin
Glenn Youngkin. Courtesy of Appalachian School of Law.

What’s the most important thing Gov. Glenn Youngkin has done so far?

Ceremonially ban critical race theory? Oh, please, let’s be serious here.

End the mask mandate? Nah. That was undoubtedly important, but only of temporary importance. Mask mandates were going to come to an end anyway, as virus rates went down, so years from now, nobody will remember exactly when they came to an end or how.

Those of you who follow my columns know that I tend to discount the silliness of the politics of the moment and try to put more emphasis on long-term policy. That’s why I dismiss much of what Youngkin has done so far – the teacher tipline, the purging of any mention of “equity and inclusion” policies from the educational system, not renewing the state contest for students to nominate historical markers as part of Black History Month. That’s not to say those things aren’t  important, be they good or bad, but they are all things that some future governor can reverse.

The most important things any governor does are the things that will outlast his term. By that measure, Youngkin has done at least three important things in barely two months in office.

First, he’s pushed for repeal of the state tax on food. True, some future governor and some future legislature could undo that, though I suspect that won’t happen anytime soon. Of course, the repeal isn’t a done deal yet – the House and Senate are at odds over whether to repeal all of it or just part of it. If the House version (sponsored by Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County) prevails, undoing the work of former Gov. Mills Godwin will be part of Youngkin’s legacy.

Second, Youngkin has endorsed a state authority that will help build a stadium in Northern Virginia for the Washington Commanders – a proposal that hasn’t gotten nearly enough scrutiny, from my point of view, but that’s beside the point. The legislature seems on the verge of approving this, my skepticism notwithstanding. Both the House and Senate have approved different versions – the differences may be important but the basic philosophy seems settled. The General Assembly is going to enable the construction of a National Football League stadium on Virginia soil – something then-Gov. Doug Wilder tried and failed to do three decades ago when he tried to get the Washington team to build a stadium in Alexandria.

Notice that both those things are dependent on the whims of the legislature, which illustrates the limits of executive power.

The third most important thing that Youngkin has done is to get involved in the selection of the next chancellor of the state community college system – and that’s something he’s been able to do on his own.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch broke this story March 7, reporting that Youngkin had sent a strongly worded letter to the community college board chair in which he “demanded he be involved in the hiring of [the] next head of the Virginia Community College System, expressing concern over declining enrollment and jobs going unfilled.”

The specific language, courtesy of reporter Eric Kolenich:

“I am writing to express my concerns about the search process and your unwillingness to collaborate with our administration on our priorities in workforce development,” Youngkin wrote to Nathaniel Bishop, chair of the State Board for Community Colleges and the head of the search committee. “Our exclusion from this process demonstrates misfeasance, and I would be derelict if I did not express that the next chancellor should be aligned with the governor” on issues of workforce development, transparency and expanding educational opportunities.

This is what is known as a “shot across the bow.”

This letter is curious on many levels. First, the governor has no formal role in deciding who the next chancellor is. Virginia’s system of higher education is explicitly set up to avoid just this very thing. Governors appoint the governing bodies of schools – boards of visitors for four-year schools, the 15-member board of the state community college in this case. We’d never see a governor weighing in on who should be president of Virginia Tech, or shouldn’t. So did Youngkin overstep his bounds here?

That depends on your point of view. Community colleges do occupy a different ecological niche, one that Youngkin alluded to in his letter when he referred to workforce development. Youngkin’s probably not worried here about whether community colleges are teaching the right interpretation of Shakespeare – think “Othello and the Elizabethan version of critical race theory; an exploration” – but whether they are producing enough CNAs and other credentialed workers. That does seem a proper matter for gubernatorial inquiry, even if his letter does strike some as heavy-handed.

Nearly a week later, Times-Dispatch columnist Jeff Schapiro peeled back the onion even further. Schapiro reported that the community college board had appeared on the verge of naming former Secretary of Education Anne Holton – wife of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine – as chancellor when Youngkin fired off his letter. Further, Schapiro suggested the search committee’s plan was to pair Holton with two out-of-state candidates and then make the case that she knew the Virginia system best.In other words, the whole thing was rigged. Since then, she’s dropped out, seeking to avoid a partisan imbroglio. 

Was this a case of partisan pique? Or a sincere feeling that the board wasn’t looking broadly enough for candidates? That I can’t say. Neither does Schapiro – and trust me, if he knew, he would say.

What we do know is that Youngkin, in his letter, invoked the M word: “Misfeasance,” not to be confused with its evil cousin, “Malfeasance.” Misfeasance is less severe but still the legal standard that empowers a governor to remove board members. Youngkin not so subtly reminded board members that if they didn’t bend to his will, he could clean house.

Here’s why this rises to the level of being one of the three most important things Youngkin has done. I take no position on whether Youngkin’s intervention here is good policy or bad policy, but it’s certainly policy of some sort – and policy that will outlast the governor’s tenure. The current community college chancellor – Glenn DuBois, who is retiring – has been in office for 21 years. He’s been there through seven governors – named when Jim Gilmore sat up on the third floor of the Capitol, retiring when Youngkin sits in the same seat, and outlasting five others in between.

We shouldn’t expect the next chancellor to last 21 years, but the average tenure of a college president these days is 6.5 years, longer than Youngkin’s four-year contract. The first chancellor of Virginia’s system, Dana Hamel, lasted 13 years. Arnold Oliver put in nine years. Johnas Hockaday stayed for seven. James Hinson – three years – and David Pierce – two years – had much shorter tenures, but add them all up, do some math, and you find the average tenure of a Virginia community college chancellor is almost 9.2 years. (There were some interim chancellors in between some of those; I’m not counting those.) By that measure, the next chancellor will last through Younkin’s term, through the next governor’s term, and maybe not leave until the next governor after that.

So, yeah, this is a pretty consequential hire. However, that tenure also raises a question about Youngkin’s desire that the next chancellor be “aligned with the governor” on certain priorities. It’s probably not wise for a chancellor to be misaligned with a governor’s priorities, but if a chancellor is going to last 9.2 years and three governors – or 21 years and seven governors – which governor should the chancellor be aligned with? Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves. However, in an earlier column, I laid out 10 questions that the candidates for chancellor ought to be asked. If I, some random dude in the backwoods of Botetourt County, can pose questions for the candidates, surely the governor can, right? (The correct answer there, by the way, is “yes.”)

I will confess some puzzlement at what Youngkin’s specific priorities are as they relate to community colleges: He spent a lot more time during the campaign talking about critical race theory than community colleges. That’s ultimately the fault of voters who pay far too much attention to bright, shiny things. But we know that Youngkin thinks Virginia could do a better job on economic development, so perhaps he’s done some serious thinking that hasn’t made its way into a campaign slogan. I have to believe that Youngkin, as the former co-CEO of the world’s second largest private equity firm, is a serious man of business, and all the politics we’re seeing are simply show biz – so perhaps this is welcome evidence of that. (I’m a fan of policy, not politics.)

For me, the most interesting part of Youngkin’s letter isn’t the threatening use of the word “misfeasance” – somebody obviously lawyered that letter – but his reference to what he calls “troubling indicators.” The Times-Dispatch runs through some of those, including 300,000 unfilled jobs in the state, a sluggish recovery from the pandemic (43rd in the country) and a 27% drop in community college enrollment in Virginia over the past decade.

“The next chancellor will need to lead VCCS to reverse these troubling indicators,” Youngkin wrote to state board chair Bishop.

Indeed.

(Local note: Bishop is senior associate dean for diversity, inclusion and student vitality at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke.)

However, at least one of those figures may be difficult for any chancellor to reverse.

Virginia’s drop in community college enrollment is not unique. Community college enrollment is down all across the country. The American Association of Community College reports that, nationally, community college enrollment peaked in 2010 and has been declining ever since. (In Virginia, it peaked in 2011.)

There are lots of reasons for this. Community college enrollment often dips when the economy is doing well – people see fewer reasons to go back to school to “upskill.” And the pandemic has certainly skewed everything the past two years. But some of this is demographic. The number of births in the United States peaked in 1990 at 4,179,000, declined to 3,882,000 in 1997 and didn’t top the 1990 high until 2006, when there were 4,270,000 births. The next year, in 2007, births hit 4,320,000. Since then, they’ve been going back down; In 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, births fell to 3,750,000 – then to 3,605,201 in 2020, the lowest figure since 1979, and the preliminary numbers suggest the 2021 numbers will be lower yet.

In Virginia, the average age of a traditional academic community college student is 26 years old. That means those students today were born in 1996 – as births were still declining. Schools can’t enroll people who weren’t born. Based on demography alone, enrollment should start to increase in two years because the pool of available students will rise slightly once those birth year 1998 students move into the system. But we likely won’t see community college enrollment hit record highs again until 2032 and 2033 (from that 2006-2007 baby boomlet). Then enrollment will likely drop again. This is the “enrollment cliff” that colleges, and not just community colleges, are concerned about. 

The numbers get even more challenging for short-term credentials programs, which might be what the governor is really concerned about. The average age of students there is 36, which means we’re dealing with students born in 1986 – which means those programs have yet to deal with the post-1991 declining birth numbers. Put more bluntly, the pool of potential credential students is going to shrink at the same time that the economy needs more credential students.

Not even the best chancellor, a perfect chancellor, can change those numbers. The only thing that can truly change them is more immigration – and at levels that the country seems unprepared to accept. Otherwise, demography really is destiny. Now, there are plenty of other things a chancellor could still do to try to work around these trends: As the economy demands more skills, we certainly need to get more students who previously didn’t consider community college to enroll – hence a lot of the necessary emphasis on first-generation students. That will entail a lot of serious thinking, and it may challenge some politicians’ ideologies. Some on the left like to talk up free community college (although many conservative states have gone this route, too). But free tuition alone likely isn’t enough. Free tuition may mean little to the 26-year-old single mom in a low-wage job – or a 36-year-old single mom. She can’t quit her job to go back to school because who’s going to pay the rent and the child care? And eventually you just run out of 26-year-olds or 36-year-olds – or any other age cohort.

Youngkin is right to want to be sure Virginia gets the chancellorship pick right, even if his methods seem overly aggressive to some. But declining enrollment isn’t a sign that the chancellor is doing a bad job; it’s a sign that we have a demographic challenge that will roil every aspect of American life, from how we fill jobs to how we pay for Social Security and other programs we’ve come to expect. As the “Game of Thrones” character Tyrion Lannister said about a looming threat of a different sort, “People’s minds aren’t made for problems that large.” If Youngkin wants to be a serious governor, though, he’ll try.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.