This week, the Virginian-Pilot printed a story thrusting the College of William and Mary into the national circuit, but not in the good way. The big question at hand: Is it unethical for the College to employ a state senator as a professor and a legal advisor if his position in Richmond gives him the power to oversee our budget? Some say yes, and we say no. Based on the facts at hand, we see no evidence of wrongdoing.
What we know: For about a year and a half, Sen. Tommy Norment J.D. ’73 (R-3rd) has been a part-time faculty member at the College. He has been paid $160,000 per year for teaching two two-credit classes per semester, running an internship program and serving as a legal advisor to the College. This salary is high — about the same as what a typical adjunct law professor responsible for a full load of three classes would earn. Since accepting the position he has sponsored $20 million in earmarks for the College, none of which were signed into law.
Complicating matters further, Virginia Attorney General Bill Mims claims that his office should exclusively provide legal advice to state universities. If that were the case, then Norment’s serving as legal advisor to the College would be illegal. Mims claims the College does not actually need legal advisers since it has access to the Office of the Attorney General, calling into question the legitimacy of this assignment.
The obvious concern is that a quid pro quo might exist in which Norment receives a cushy post in return for favors in the Finance Committee, where he is a powerful senior member. Virginians are particularly attuned to such arrangements now after a recent scandal at Old Dominion University in which a delegate pressed university officials for assurances that he would receive a position before securing money to endow the desired post.
But that isn’t this. Before accepting his position, Norment secured a conflict of interest approval from then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell — a document which he now needs to produce for the public. Since then, he has been paid for services rendered; as a teacher and as a legal adviser, he has been a valuable voice in the halls of the College, and he is only one of many such state legislators who hold faculty positions in one of Virginia’s universities. And it should be no surprise when Norment supports the College; we are, after all, a part of his constituency.
Lastly, Norment is not a normal professor, and it is a false equivalency to suggest he should be paid as if he were. He is a powerful state senator and attorney who knows Virginia law and politics inside and out, making him an invaluable resource to students interesting in careers in either of these fields. While those outside the school may see this exchange as improper, if it takes $160,000 to get Norment on the faculty, that sounds like money well spent to College students — those who now have access to him.
We would be more sympathetic to Mims’s argument if Norment were an exceptional case. In actuality, it is the College’s policy of looking outward for legal advice that is rare. The practice of hiring non-OAG attorneys is long-standing at the College, and we have several other attorneys who hold such a position. Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate this practice on the whole, but it would be inappropriate to limit that reconsideration to Norment. As things stand, this feels like little more than politicking on the Attorney General’s behalf.
Scrutiny of public officials is always healthy and appropriate. In this case, there is nothing wrong with considering the implications of Norment’s employment at the College. However, as far as we can tell, all of this looks to be nothing more than a trumped up non-story. Let’s move past it.