On Friday, July 1, I had a chance to catch up with former Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, and given all that’s happened the past few weeks (see Video: Virginia House, Senate Democrats Condemn Governor Youngkin’s “Totalitarian” Attacks on the Virginia Community College System Board; Youngkin appoints opponent of admissions changes at TJ to Va. Board of Education; and also Molly Ball Pens the Most Pathetically Bad Article Ever Written About Glenn Youngkin?, which makes some crazy assertions about Youngkin’s education record), we had a lot to talk about! I’m going to break the interview up into three parts over the holiday weekend: 1) yesterday, what Atif Qarni had to say about Youngkin’s appointments to the Virginia Board of Education (including being “pleasantly surprised” at a couple, but also appalled at one of them, and noting that Youngkin is a “racist” and “bigot”); 2) today, what he thinks about Youngkin’s assault on the community college system; 3) on July 4th, our discussion about the bizarre profile of Youngkin by “journalist” Molly Ball in Time Magazine. Enjoy!
Qarni: “So let’s go to the community college board…he’s overstepping his authority there. It’s bizarre for a governor to intervene in a community college chancellorship that is the purview of the community college board. That chancellorship interview process started when I was in office and Governor Northam was in office and we didn’t micromanage and we didn’t lean in and say do this do or that. We trust that the people we appointed to the community college board are professionals and they will work with each other – it’s their authority given by the state law – to figure out and hire a chancellor. I think it’s borderline illegal. I think it’s definitely unethical, but it might have some legal…lines that the governor and his administration might be crossing. But then again, we also have an attorney general who is completely biased where he is probably you know not going to enforce the legal line.”
Qarni: “I don’t know the details of what happened [with the hiring of a new chancellor, who then didn’t take the job]…and Sharon Morrissey who is the interim chancellor, she’s amazing actually in my opinion, I know Sharon well, I think she would make a great chancellor. But I think that’s the problem is that Governor Youngkin is worried that they’ll put in a chancellor that…I don’t know, there are not many community college chancellors out there that fit the mold of what youngkin wants. Most of them…really care about educational equity. If you see community colleges, whether they’re in rural areas that might be predominantly white or rural areas that are predominantly black or urban areas…they’re in locations in Virginia where there are no four-year institutions, so a lot of economically disadvantaged families attend community colleges. There are twice as many more students in a community college than our four-year institutions. The reason for that is that there are multiple career paths that people are seeking, many of them are part-time students or they might be parenting students or they might be switching careers, they might be first-gen students. Almost all of the community college students are Pell eligible. There’s a significant equity issue there. So by design, the chancellors and the presidents and the leaders of community college are more focused on educational equity compared to four-year institutional leaders…it’s a very different ballgame, right? The way a president of a William and Mary…is very different from a president or a chancellor of a community college…completely different world.”
Blue Virginia: “So the Virginia House and Senate Democrats…had a press conference on June 29 and they called it Governor Youngkin’s ‘totalitarian takeover’ – very strong words. Sen. Ghazala Hashmi said ‘these actions along with Virginia Republicans’ persistent attacks on public education and their signals indicating a desire to limit cherished academic freedoms in our colleges and universities will irreparably harm the next generation of Virginians and scar the autonomy higher education must have.’ And she said she’s ‘distressed’ about Youngkin’s ‘executive overreach,’ adding that ‘his direct involvement in the hiring of the new chancellor will likely have decades-long impacts on Virginia’s community colleges’. Do you agree with that?”
Qarni: “Yeah so I do 100% agree with that. I think that the Senator is 100% on point…and again, keep in mind that the Senator has worked in the community college system…she knows it better than anyone, that’s why she’s frustrated and she’s 100% right. If you get a chancellor that does not understand what Virginians need or what…students who go to community colleges need and you force in there… an individual who does not value challenges that community college students are facing, and you get a long-term contract like say a current 10-year contract, it will completely dismantle all the good work we’ve done, one of the best models in the country…G3 is a state-of-the-art program…before G3 was implemented in Virginia, the best model was actually Tennessee, so we studied Tennessee’s model, we studied half a dozen other states because Virginia was one of the very last ones to implement a true free community college. We also took a lot of good ideas from other states like the emergency stipend, the non-tuition costs as well. It is amazing. It also focuses on job placement, not only getting a credential…I was actually just having a lunch with the Northern Virginia Community College president and she was raving about how amazing the program is. And I talked to other community college presidents across the country in my new job, and they’re always just saying hey, whatever you did in Virginia, the g3 is amazing. The colleagues love it, students are benefiting. If you put in the wrong leader there, they will dismantle it, they’ll destroy it, and it’ll be a shame. You have literally researchers who are world renowned studying the model because that’s how good it is…”
Qarni: “If you go to the where Governor Youngkin won by a landslide in rural Virginia, which is predominantly white and Republican um the vast majority of those families the students they actually go to community college. There’s no four-year institution. UVA-Wise is the only four-year public presence…in rural Virginia. Many many students, and I met so many of them, rely on community colleges because they’re all across in all different all corners of the commonwealth. That’s why we invested a lot of time and energy and Governor Northam was brilliant in emphasizing G3. He saw something, probably when he was Lieutenant Governor or State Senator, traveling the state that the value of them. I think he knew exactly what he was doing. I actually learned a lot when I came on in the first year as I traveled, I was like oh my god, this is where all you know the bulk of college students are going, this is the best way to really uplift a lot of people out of tough economic situations, upward mobility.”
Blue Virginia: “Right, so the fact that Glenn Youngkin’s hostile to *that*, does that seem pretty telling to you?
Qarni: “I truly don’t think this administration has known what the hell they’re doing…I don’t think he truly understands the scope of the community college system. What he’s trying to do is hurt everyone…there’s no community college in the country that’s private. Community colleges by design are state-supported, they’re public, they’re never going to go to a private model. I think he truly is…he started with K-12, now he’s going to community colleges, he’s looking at the leadership, he truly believes that in our education system, the people who are running these systems, he believes that they…he’s labeled them. Look at his campaign rhetoric – they’re woke, they’re socialist, they’re talking about critical race theory and equity…He truly hates that. I think that this is again this racist and bigoted commentary he ran on. If you look at the community college board, they use the equity language. If you look at the current chancellor…he is very very forward-thinking, progressive, talks about diversity equity inclusion as do the vast majority of community college leaders. So that’s what I think Glenn Youngkin is against…I do know that socioeconomic-wise…[community colleges] are the gateway for upward mobility better than anything.”
Qarni: “What [Youngkin] tried to do with the community college board is more severe than anything right now…A chancellor has much more authority and power than the board of education…board people get appointed and they come and go…in the next three years, I really mean it, I truly believe we’re going to have a good leader, good governor who’s going to be a Democrat and they will clean house and all of these people who are coming in that might be problematic we’ll get rid of them. But a chancellor can stay there for a decade…the real power is with a state superintendent or a secretary or a chancellor, especially a chancellor who is going to be there for a very long time, so that really worries me.”