Virginia's new Republican attorney general has named Anne Gentry as the interim top lawyer at George Mason University, selecting an employee from the public institution's legal office who is married to a long-time Koch Foundation executive and Republican fundraiser.
The move comes shortly after Attorney General Jason Miyares dismissed lawyers from the chief legal jobs at George Mason and the University of Virginia.
Virginia's attorney general has the power to name the public universities' top legal officers, or counsel. But the firings drew widespread attention because the lawyers Miyares removed were Democrats and because one, former U of Virginia counsel Tim Heaphy, was on leave while working as the head investigator for the U.S. House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection.
Faculty members worry the new interim appointment signals more of what they consider undue political influence at the university, which is the state's top-enrolling four-year public institution.
George Mason has also been a top college recipient of money from Koch entities over decades — and the home of fierce battles over the university accepting money with strings attached and how much big donors can influence its operations.
A new chief lawyer
The state Attorney General's Office recently named Anne Gentry, who was associate university counsel at George Mason, as interim university counsel.
She is the wife of Kevin Gentry, a well-known Republican fundraiser who has held several executive positions in the Kochs' organizations.
Anne Gentry replaces Brian Walther, a Democrat who worked at the university for more than two decades. He'd been counsel at the university since 2017. Both the U of Virginia and George Mason say on their websites that the state attorney general names their counsel.
A spokesperson for the Virginia attorney general told news media it's common for incoming attorneys general to name counsel that fits their “philosophy and legal approach.”
Anne Gentry referred a request for comment from Higher Ed Dive to the attorney general's office, which did not respond to emails before this story's publication deadline. Phone calls to the attorney general's spokesperson went to a voicemail that was full and not accepting messages.
While Anne Gentry already worked at the university prior to Walther's firing, some faculty are concerned about the optics of her appointment.
Gifts from billionaire industrialists Charles Koch and the late David Koch to the university were revealed to have come with conditions like giving the Kochs a say on who was hired for faculty positions they helped fund.
And Kevin Gentry's employer, Koch Industries, donated $5,000 to Miyares' attorney general campaign last year, according to campaign finance records.
It also gave $10,000 to the campaign of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, one of the Republicans who took the top three state positions in Virginia's recent election. The company also donated $50,000 to Youngkin's inauguration committee, which Kevin Gentry worked on.
Kevin Gentry directly gave $1,000 to Youngkin and $500 to Miyares' attorney general campaign. His wife did not donate to either politician but has given to other Republicans in the past.
Faculty are asking if political influence is at play with Anne Gentry's appointment, said Bethany Letiecq, a George Mason human development and family science professor and vice president of the university's American Association of University Professors chapter.
"Brian Walther served under Republican and Democratic administrations," Letiecq said. "As one of my colleagues told me, he's been really important helping faculty position themselves to protect academic freedom. I think people are really concerned."
The university has received no faculty complaints regarding Anne Gentry's appointment, George Mason spokesperson Robin Rose Parker said in an email. Parker said university officials did not weigh in on her selection and are not aware whether she will be named permanently to the position.
"Anne Gentry has been an effective and professional associate university counsel at George Mason University for more than 15 years," Parker said. "We see no reason why that would change during her service as interim University Counsel."
Faculty found Walther's departure puzzling and shocking, said Tim Gibson, communications professor and president of the university AAUP chapter.
The group thinks "people should be treated fairly and not fired summarily for no stated reason," Gibson said. The counsel position should not change with the ideological bent of a new state administration, he said.
Gibson said he never once heard about Walther's political beliefs.
"I think that's a sign he had his focus on the daily kind of work," Gibson said. "We would have known if he had a politicized agenda at the university."
The university's AAUP chapter doesn't plan to immediately pass judgment on Anne Gentry. But it wants a counsel who "is an honest broker" and believes in a public university's mission of free inquiry, Gibson said.
Koch connections strike a chord
The changes at George Mason sting because the university has already faced criticism over allowing conservative-linked donations, particularly from Koch entities, to shape decision making.
The Kochs have poured more money into the institution than any other college in the U.S., according to UnKoch My Campus, a group opposed to the Koch family's influence in higher education. The university and two affiliated organizations received more than $23 million in Koch money in 2019, it found.
George Mason and the two organizations have received $179 million from the foundations since 2005, which represents about 40% of its total investment in colleges, according to the organization.
A student group in 2017 sued the university and the George Mason University Foundation, seeking to access donor agreements that George Mason argued were not subject to state public records laws.
The case reached the Virginia Supreme Court. Although the court in 2019 sided with the foundation, ruling it is a private entity that does not have to disclose such records, the university released documents detailing its donor arrangements in the course of the lawsuit.
The institution had granted its benefactors sway over hirings and firings, according to documents. Then-university President Ángel Cabrera said at the time the agreements "fall short of the standards of academic independence" and opened questions about donor influence. He then ordered an inquiry into the university's donor agreements and standards.
Despite the court ruling, the university in 2019 developed a new policy that gives the public access to review most terms of donor deals.
The policy also specified donors could not influence employment decisions. And it set up a committee that would review gifts worth $250,000 or more, or would potentially harm the university's reputation, before the Geroge Mason foundation accepted them.
In 2020, Virginia's legislature passed a bill that made most elements of a donor agreement available under the state's sunshine laws and one requiring public colleges to enact policies governing gifts that come with strings attached.
Gibson said Walther, the former counsel, was instrumental in implementing George Mason's new transparency rules.
He said some concerns still linger about the effectiveness of the George Mason gift committee, such as whether faculty are given adequate voice on it.
"But we want to let this process mature," Gibson said. "Our goal was to really shine a light on the relationship between external donors and the university."