George Washington University President Thomas LeBlanc surprised many faculty members yesterday with a public declaration of the university for making the 51st state. There is considerable support for statehood at the university but there is no indication that the faculty voted on such a declaration and there is no indication that even the Board as a whole voted on the matter. Some of us have long maintained that, regardless of the merits of a political measure, the university should avoid speaking for the entire institution out of respect to myriad of different voices and views represented in our community. This could well be a question upon which we should abandon our traditional neutrality as an institution and speak as one voice. As one of the oldest institutions in the city, the university may have legitimately wanted to be heard on the question. Yet, even when the school chooses to do so, faculty governance values warrant that the faculty should be given an opportunity to be heard. The staff and students also deserve to be heard as part of this process. This specific legislation has been pending for months and we could have presented the matter to the faculty, staff, and students for their input. If we did, I am not aware of it and the university did not suggest that such a vote was ever taken by the community. I have asked other faculty who were also unaware of any vote by the faculty, students or staff. The university itself could not cite any prior vote after an inquiry. The result is not necessarily different but the process is important. I would feel the same way (indeed more so) if the University announced opposition to D.C. statehood without faculty, staff, and student participation.
I expect that, if the faculty were asked, there would likely be a great deal of support for the measure, though some would continue to encourage that such endorsements be made by individuals or groups of faculty and students. We are a large community with different political and social viewpoints. Maintaining that intellectual and political pluralism is central to its mission as an institution of higher education.
These can be difficult questions but something the process of consultation and deliberation can bring a sense of unity. The law school recently faced this issue when it elected to have faculty members sign a letter condemning Attorney General William Barr rather than having a resolution that spoke for the entire school. I commended my colleagues for their decision not to make such a statement as an institution, even though they clearly had sufficient votes to do so. Their decision to state their views as individuals was an important demonstration of the continued support for collegiality and pluralism on our faculty. Some of us felt that the letter made a number of legal statements that I believe are contested, unestablished, or mistaken. The decision to use a letter of individual faculty members rather than a resolution of the school spoke to our continued commitment to such civil and scholarly discourse.
Again, this is such an important issue that the university as a whole could well have decided that we needed to speak as an institution. Indeed, such a declaration is more powerful when issued with the participation of our community as a whole. If we had a university-wide discussion and decision on this issue, I expect some would have voiced countervailing views, but there is also a value to people being able to join as a community in speaking to such issues. The debate over D.C. statehood is a complex issue with historical, constitutional, and legal dimensions. It is also an issue with important and unresolved racial issues of a black-majority city without direct representation in Congress. I have previously voiced my view that such lack of representation for the District is unacceptable and untenable in our country.
I testified five times in the House and the Senate on this issue in Congress, particularly on the effort to simply give the District a vote in the House of Representatives. I encouraged the Congress to avoid such flagrantly unconstitutional measures of a vote as a non-state entity and instead focus on a vote of statehood or retrocession. I proposed a “modified retrocession plan”, which was also discussed in an academic work. See, Jonathan Turley, Too Clever By Half: The Partial Representation of the District of Columbia in the House of Representatives, 76 George Washington University Law Review 305-374 (2008). Under my proposal, the mall and core federal buildings would remain the District of Columbia (as is the case in this legislation) but the remainder of the District would retrocede back to Maryland (as did the other half of the original District to Virginia). In this way, residents would receive full representation while receiving the benefits of various Maryland educational and other opportunities. I believed that such retrocession offered the fastest course for not just full representation but improved social and educational programs for the district residents. I laid out a phased retrocession plan that began with immediate and full representation. This could be done by congressional vote.
People of good-faith can disagree on such proposals and the current legislation is clearly a constitutional approach to reaching a final resolution on the lack of representation in Congress. Indeed, it is important to hear from those who believe that statehood is an important step toward dealing with the historical racial inequalities and discrimination in our nation. Modified retrocession may not be enough to resolve such issues for many in our community.
That debate however goes to the merits on how best to secure representational rights for District residents. The immediate question is the decision for the university to take a position as an institution and to do so without a faculty vote. I contacted the media relations for the university to inquire about the process leading up to this public declaration. It stated that the decision was made by President LeBlanc and “Board leadership.” I was unable to confirm if this meant that there was a vote of the Board as a whole. Section IV of the rules governing the Board does state that the “Executive Committee, during the intervals between meetings of the Board of Trustees, shall, to the extent not otherwise specified by the Board, possess and exercise all of the powers and duties of the Board of Trustees, except the Committee shall have no power to elect or remove Trustees or the President.” It is not clear if this was a permitted vote of the Executive Committee and whether it held such a vote.
Once again, I believe that many faculty and students might have supported the measure, though I cannot say with any certainty. The issue is one of faculty and student governance.
Here is the statement issued by President LeBlanc:
“The George Washington University strongly supports the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, which would admit much of present-day Washington, D.C., into the union as a new state.
The historic U.S. House of Representatives vote today represents a vote for equality for more than 700,000 District residents. Many of our faculty, staff, and students live in the District, so they lack fair representation in the federal government’s most consequential decisions, including critical matters of funding to address racial and health inequities in our nation’s capital. We also believe that representation would allow our university more opportunities to contribute, through our academic and research missions, solutions that address these and other significant challenges and improve the lives of all Americans.
We remain grateful to the District’s elected officials, especially Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor Muriel Bowser, for their leadership and tireless advocacy for D.C. statehood.”