Search for Community College Chancellor Left Youngkin Out of the Loop

Russell A. Kavalhuna, new chancellor of the Virginia Community College Systemby James A. Bacon

Community colleges across the country are suffering declines in enrollment. The drop-off in Virginia is particularly acute. Enrollment has fallen 27% over the past 10 years, even as there are 300,000 unfilled jobs in the state. Virginia’s job recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic has been dismal — 43rd out of 50 states.

Governor Glenn Youngkin thinks that’s a problem. And with the retirement of Glenn DuBois, who has served as chancellor of the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) for 21 years, he saw an opportunity to hire a new leader whose vision for workforce development was aligned with his own.

But yesterday, the board announced that it had hired Russell A. Kavalhuna, president of Henry Ford College in Detroit, to succeed DuBois. The search committee largely left Youngkin out of the loop.

The implications are bigger than the impact on the community college system alone. If the board of the VCCS showed Youngkin no deference, it’s not likely that the boards of Virginia’s other higher-ed institutions — fully stocked with Democrats appointed by former Governor Ralph Northam and/or Terry McAuliffe — will either.

In the past, the hand-over from one administration to the next has rarely been contentious. But higher-ed in Virginia has seen a takeover by boards and presidents committed to implementing divisive social-justice ideology — a trend that Youngkin has pledged to reverse.

There are signs that college and university administrations are bracing for a battle. The University of Virginia Board of Visitors recently extended the contract of President Jim Ryan, which expires in 2025, by an extra three years. As justification for the unusual move, the board cited Ryan’s superb job in fund raising and in coping with the COVID-19 epidemic. But many UVa watchers suspect that the real motive was entrenching Ryan in place should board members appointed by Youngkin over the next four years seek to replace him.

In a letter written earlier this month, Youngkin asked for a briefing of the VCCS board’s strategy, a discussion of the search, and a list of candidates and their qualifications. Reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

“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.”

(Kudos, by the way, to reporter Eric Kolenich, whose stories I have often criticized. He has done an even-handed job covering this particular controversy.)

Youngkin did not want to usurp the board’s role in picking the next VCCS president, but he did want a collaborative approach. “Without more information, I can only assume this board is continuing down the same path in choosing a chancellor that has led to the current state of the system,” he wrote.

Youngkin asked for a meeting with Board Chair Nathaniel Bishop and members of the hiring committee. Instead, reports Kolenich, the Governor and Bishop “conferred” twice.

In Younkin’s reckoning, that consultation wasn’t enough. In a second letter, he wrote, “Our exclusion from your search process for the next chancellor was disappointing, and I strongly recommend that the selection committee appoint an interim chancellor and restart the process.”

Kavalhuna was a prosecutor, airline pilot and executive director of the Western Michigan University College of Aviation before taking charge of Henry Ford College, a community college in Michigan. Judging by the paucity of Google results, his tenure there was uncontroversial.

“Russ Kavalhuna is a transformational higher educational leader who is uniquely prepared to move forward our community college system and elevate it to be the best in the nation,” said Bishop in announcing the appointment. “Russ is an outside-the-box thinker, and an innovator whose career has focused on workforce development and finding creative ways to connect adult learners with high-demand career opportunities. We are excited to bring this rock star to Virginia.”

“With experience in industry and in the academy, my passion and priority will be to connect unemployed and under-employed Virginians with businesses suffering through talent shortages,” Kavalhuna said.There is broad and bipartisan agreement that families, communities, and economies are stronger when more people have access to community colleges. I look forward to the challenge of leading Virginia’s Community Colleges to build the nation’s best workforce development system and serving people in every corner of the Commonwealth.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Mr. Kavalkuna as an Arab-American and suggested that his ethnic identity might have been a factor in his selection. A spokesman for the Virginia Community College System informs me that he is not Arab-American. I have corrected the text, apologize for the error, and apologize for improperly imputing a motive to the VCCS board.