Chartering a middle ground
THE PUBLIC mission of the University is its most important guiding principle, and today it faces danger. Virginia's General Assembly has mismanaged the University and subjugated our mission to partisan goals, and due to the persistence of unfair districting, the University's differences with Richmond will endure for a long time to come. It is reasonable, therefore, for the University to seek a new relationship with the Commonwealth. The Chartered University Initiative is necessary for the University's future as a public-minded institution.
Opposition to the initiative has arisen in two main areas: the treatment of University workers and rising tuition. Because the process of formulating the proposal was closed or unknown to many members of the community, the debate has polarized and lost in the shuffle an important fact: that charter status in and of itself does not endanger either of those interests. The charter is a malleable, yet-unapproved document that the University can -- and should -- design to incorporate assurances regarding these two issues. To secure a new relationship with the Commonwealth in order to better follow its public mission, the University must introduce a charter that establishes baseline standards for the University in those two areas.
The Chartered University Initiative currently sits before a joint General Assembly committee and would grant the University more leeway in managing personnel, capital projects, procurement and other areas. The proposed autonomy, however, causes concern for University workers. Jan Cornell, president of the Staff Union at U.Va. and a vocal critic of the proposal, pointed out that while the administration has made promises to current employees, "There are no guarantees to future workers -- new employees should have the same rights as current ones."
SUUVA is also concerned about current employees losing other benefits and protections. Currently, University workers receive a pay raise every time the General Assembly approves one for state employees, and workers fear that raises will occur at a much slower rate without Richmond's guiding hand. In addition, Cornell said that the charter will eliminate any recourse for issues that employees have. "With the charter, the Board of Visitors will be in charge and the union feels the University will have no accountability. Currently U.Va. is accountable to Richmond. With the charter they will not be," she said.
The administration has made promises to its current workers, but promises are not sufficient when dealing with the livelihoods of members of the University community. A clear base, fixed at today's standards, along with a viable method of employee recourse outside the Board of Visitors, needs to be codified within the charter itself.
Many have expressed concern that the charter initiative would cause tuition to rise and become unaffordable for poorer students. Estimates show that under the current charter plan, in-state tuition could rise 10 percent per year for the next six years.
The administration has long insisted that tuition increases are inevitable regardless of charter status. It has implemented the "Access U.Va." program -- which dedicates itself in the long term to meeting 100 percent of students' demonstrated financial need -- to help ease the pain of expected raises. Access U.Va. deserves plaudits, but the University cannot quell tuition concerns through programs that are not required by the charter itself and could be rolled back. To insure that the University is a place of truly equal opportunity for Virginians of all social classes, if the charter grants the University the ability to raise tuition, it must also obligate it to meet the additional financial need that the increase creates.
The administration has promised that it will always strive to treat its faculty well and make education affordable. While the University community has reason to believe that the administration will keep its promises, trusting an institution never means declining to verify it has kept its promises. Assurances can and should be built into the charter itself.
Nothing less than our core values dictate that we follow a public mission by ensuring that the University is a fairer place to work and an affordable place to. And on top of that, failing to make such assurances -- and therefore allowing opposition to fester here and in Richmond -- sends the wrong message to stakeholders and policymakers, endangering the chance of this important initiative ever passing.
To see through the charter initiative, the University needs to set certain priorities in stone. The administration may not smile upon potential rigidities, but pursuing more autonomy has never meant craving total autonomy, and as long as the charter proposal lacks guarantees, we face a good chance that the state will not grant us any more autonomy at all. The administration must take the initiative in proposing this new model to the General Assembly. If it takes the middle ground regarding these concerns, the University will be able to go important new places. Otherwise, the University will end up going nowhere.
Michael Slaven's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.