Education

Firings of Top Lawyers at UVa and George Mason Raise Questions of Political Interference

The dismissal of two Virginia universities’ lawyers by the state’s new Republican attorney general is raising questions of political interference in higher education.

Attorney General Jason S. Miyares fired Timothy J. Heaphy, counsel for the University of Virginia, and Brian Walther, counsel for George Mason University, shortly before the AG was sworn in on January 15, The Washington Post reported. Heaphy was on leave from UVa to work for the U.S. House of Representatives on the investigation into the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Heaphy and Walther were among roughly 30 staffers whom Miyares dismissed. Both are Democrats. UVa‘s and GMU‘s university-counsel websites both specify that the state attorney general appoints lawyers in their offices.

The removals follow another controversial education decision by the state’s new leadership. On his first day in office, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who highlighted education in his candidacy, issued a directive prohibiting state agencies — including institutions of higher education — from requiring employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Public colleges, including the University of Virginia and George Mason, have rescinded their vaccination mandates for employees.

Democrats have criticized these actions as politically motivated. U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, Democrat of Virginia and a member of the January 6 panel, told the Post that she was “concerned that someone in a position like this (at the university) would be fired for political reasons.” Luria could not be reached for comment by The Chronicle. Victoria LaCivita, Miyares’s spokeswoman, has not responded to The Chronicle’s phone and email requests for comment; she told the Post it is common for the incoming attorney general to appoint lawyers that share his “philosophy and legal approach.”

Heaphy had served as UVa’s lead counsel for three years before going on leave and was hired after finishing an independent investigation of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that turned deadly in August 2017. Before that, he served as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia. He earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from UVa.

In an email statement to The Chronicle, Heaphy expressed disappointment but said that he is “confident that the office will continue to provide quality service as the university continues to thrive in the days to come.”

“University leaders are grateful to Tim for his outstanding service to our community and disappointed to see it come to an end,” said Brian Coy, a spokesman for UVa.

In an email statement to The Chronicle, John D. Hollis, a spokesman at George Mason, expressed disappointment at Walther’s dismissal.

“Brian Walther has been a respected and valued member of the university community for 22 years, including his five years as University Counsel,” Hollis said. “He has conducted himself in a professional manner and done an admirable job at Mason.”

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