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Donor beware: UVa leaders float tracking professors' political donations

The University of Virginia could become the first major institution of higher education in the entire country to start publishing the political donations of its faculty and staff if some of the ideas floated by members of its governing body are adopted.

What they will find from already publicly available information is something that is already a well-known fact. At UVa, like at almost every college across the country, professors and administrators tend to be more liberal than the average American.

What is not known is how UVa, or any university, could use data on donations to make decisions. Will it cause them to hire or fire specific faculty? No one will say.

Much like calls to track student and faculty political and religious affiliation, UVa itself has been tight-lipped, only raising doubts about the practicality of either proposal and reinforcing the school’s commitment to diversity.

“We should look and see does this looks diverse to us,” Douglas Wetmore, one of the more conservative members of the Board of Visitor said at a June 2 meeting, referring to the political diversity of faculty. “Maybe we got good diversity, and we just don’t realize it. Maybe we don’t and maybe it is uneven, and we need to make some adjustments.”

Wetmore, appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Daily Progress.

Like Wetmore, many other conservatives connected to UVa floated the idea that tracking faculty donations could help push back against what they see as the infiltration of leftist professors in the classroom.

“We feel like indoctrination is getting worse because the older generation of baby boomer faculty, who were tolerant people and weren’t out to force students to think one way, are retiring and being replaced,” Jim Bacon, executive director of the influential conservative UVa alumni group the Jefferson Council, told The Daily Progress. “The new generation is far more to the left politically, and you have departments that are already leaning left try to hire more people that think like them, rather than creating diversity.”

Bacon and Wetmore’s political ally Bert Ellis on the board said much of the same.

“It’s a small nucleus of conservative professors here at the university,” Ellis said at the meeting in June. “If someone wanted to take the time they could research [political donations] by ZIP code, occupation and precinct, they could.”

Ellis also did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Daily Progress.

Leaders close to Youngkin backed the idea as well.

“In a state like Virginia, which is roughly 55-45 politically at any given time, how do you measure what the ideology and political perspectives are of administration and faculty at a major university? One measurement certainly could be just looking at donations on the internet,” said Edwin Feulner Jr., the founder of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation and current chair of the commonwealth’s Commission on Higher Education Board Appointments.

The Daily Progress investigated that publicly available data. On the political donation tracking website OpenSecrets, during the 2022 election cycle, UVa faculty and staff favored Democratic candidates over Republican candidates, based on donations by a ratio of 30 to 1.

During the 2022 election cycle, Democratic candidates received 96.1% of donations, Republican candidates received 3.3% and Libertarian candidates received 0.6%.

Bacon is correct: Things have changed.

The numbers are radically different from a little more than 20 years ago. In the 2000 elections, the total amount of money donated to Republicans tallied more than the money donated to Democrats. In the 2000 election cycle, Republicans received around 52% of donations, Democrats received 41% and independent candidates received 6%.

But numbers can be deceiving.

Most professors and administrators at UVa don’t actually donate to any political campaigns, and even if they did, they often donate “dark money,” sending money to groups that do not disclose the identities of donors.

“Contributions to federal and state candidates and parties are already disclosed by law, so it’s a matter of public record,” Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at UVa, told The Daily Progress. “If they simply want to post what is already public, fine. I think they’ll find that a clear majority of faculty do not make donations to candidates.”

Sabato himself has only donated five times, totaling $2,100, to political candidates and causes since 1999. His latest donation was his first since 2004, and it was $500 to a Republican-affiliated political action committee.

And even if the donations did accurately reflect the politics of the faculty, supporters won’t say what they will use it for. They only have said what they wouldn’t do.

“The idea is not to put a tag on individual professors, and the idea is not to create a kind of new ideological litmus test that you have a certain percent of new conservatives,” Bacon said. “If the tracking is now a problem, it would be a brand-new problem. We should be aware of and thinking about it when we go about bringing in some more diversity of thought.”


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