A conversation with former W&M President Paul Verkuil '61| March 17, 2011
Paul Verkuil ’61 is a name familiar to most members of the William and Mary family, first as a student in the early 1960s and later as the 24th president of the College, from 1985 -’92. Since that time, Verkuil has served in many high-profile positions in academia and government and as the CEO of the American Automobile Association.
Most recently, Verkuil was asked by President Obama to revive the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS), which is an agency of the federal government created to find efficiencies to improve the processes of government.
“We try and stay on the procedural side rather than commenting on the substance of government regulation,” says Verkuil. “We’re trying to make government work better, not change its mission.”
Verkuil is the first chair of the conference since it was shuttered in 1995. This restart presents special challenges, especially when one considers the mission of ACUS. One of the first projects the Conference took was on the preemption of state law by federal agencies, followed by the application of government ethics rules to federal contractors, as opposed to federal employees. These are two large projects that Verkuil and his team are focused on, but they certainly are not all of what ACUS is looking into.
“One interesting project involves technology’s transformative effects onto government regulation,” says Verkuil. “Anyone can submit documents electronically, unlike the old days, when everything was submitted in paper. A rulemaking file would exist in the agency’s office or docket room, and if you weren’t living in Washington, you wouldn’t have access to it.”
Verkuil notes that thanks to new communications tools, everyone in the smallest and most remote village or hamlet in America can access new governmental documents. But this in itself raises new issues, especially when there are laws on the books, written in the 1950s through ’70s when this sort of ability was in the realm of science fiction.
“There’s another statute called the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which was passed in the 1970s,” says Verkuil. “Under this act, if the government brings in an advisory committee to help them make decisions or to solve problems, you have to give 15 days notice and it’s all very elaborate, so that the public has a right to appear at these meetings. Suppose you want to have an electronic meeting? It would save the government an awful lot if you didn’t have to meet in Washington.”
His involvement with the ACUS is something that has a storybook feeling about it for Verkuil. It was for the Conference that he wrote and published one of his first scholarly papers to appear in the Virginia Law Review, while he was teaching law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The chair of the ACUS at that time was current Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a good friend of Verkuil’s.
“It was a great treat to work with the Conference when he was chair and now I’ve taken his job years later,” says Verkuil. “So there is a lot of continuity here and that makes it exciting. I really enjoyed going to see Justice Scalia and inviting him back to swear in our members at our first meeting in December, which he did.”
And while he is quite busy with his chairmanship of the Conference, he keeps a sharp eye on his alma mater, especially now as his 50th Reunion is fast approaching.
“When I was a graduate in 1961, I never thought about 50 years later, or that it would ever come,” says Verkuil. “Even when I was president 25 years later, I used to watch the 50th class get their awards at Commencement. I said to myself, ‘that could never be me!’ But here I am, and I must say that I feel very good to be here.
“At this stage in your life, you are just happy to still be doing important things and actively involved in the world. So, that’s what I intend to say when I give some remarks at the 50th celebration in the Wren yard.”
One item that interests Verkuil especially is how the College has maintained its involvement with service organizations, like the Peace Corps. That is something that holds a dear place in his heart, as he was almost part of the first group of Peace Corps volunteers. But a different sort of service changed his plans.
“I was selected into the first class of the Peace Corps, when Sargent Shriver was just coming in,” says Verkuil. “I was so inspired — back when I was a senior, Bobby Kennedy came to campus to give a talk about his brother, who was running for president. That was a powerful moment in which he talked about service, and of course that theme was in President Kennedy’s inaugural address; it was what one could do for the country.
“I signed up and I was selected, but I had a dilemma because I was due to report for active duty in the military in the same year. It turned out that I had to go into the military; they would not give me a deferment. So I never got to serve in the Peace Corps, and I’ve always been proud that William and Mary graduates have continued that connection to the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and the other public service organizations.
Other than his duties with the ACUS and plans to return to the College in April for the Class of 1961’s reunion, he reports that there is one other side project that he’s planning to complete.
“I am gathering ideas for a book on my experiences in government,” says Verkuil, who has written quite a few. “But at the moment I am just keeping up with everything that goes on. I am not writing at this point — I am acting and doing.”