A concrete charter
AS I have written before, the University community is at a turning point where it must re-conceive its notion of a public institution. The University has suffered from state mismanagement in the past decade, so it is proper that the University seeks a new relationship with the state -- in the Chartered University Initiative -- so it is better equipped to follow its public mission and provide a high-quality education to its students. The idea of a chartered university â??- and much support for the notion within the community â??- emerges from the concept that our public mission is not something the state must enforce (and, indeed, it has acted against the interests of that mission), but rather a charge we should invest in our own institution, led by the Board of Visitors and the administration.
But the administration, contrary to the image of a responsible actor that deserves freedom from the state's reins, drafted the charter in a closed manner and now seems unresponsive to concerns about the charter from within the community. Only after the charter's drafting and introduction to the General Assembly do stakeholders have an opportunity to object to the charter's vagueness and lack of assurances, and so far it does not seem they are being taken seriously. Not only do the administration's actions raise questions over whether it deserves more power, but they also endanger the chance of this important legislation passing.
In the past, I have said that the charter is generally a good idea, but needs to have certain assurances built in to guard the interests of groups who will be made more vulnerable under it. Current and future staff members, who stand to lose recourse in the General Assembly and pay raises mandated by Richmond, need to be guaranteed a baseline standard of compensation and a regular schedule of raises akin to those of state employees. Poorer students, who will be threatened by rising tuition costs, need to be assured that whenever the Board of Visitors raises tuition -â?? which the charter allows it to do independently â??- the University will provide enough available aid to cover additional need. Neither protection is included in the current draft of the charter.
Opposition has emerged recently from a diverse group of community members who share these general concerns, and this coalition is more organized and serious than ever before. Tuesday, the Faculty-Student-Staff Alliance on the Charter Initiative presented a teach-in on the initiative. The majority of the panel -- which included staff, students and faculty (according to organizers, administrators declined to participate) -- was skeptical of the charter and dedicated to stopping it in its current form. Most did not oppose the charter inherently, but because at the moment it does not contain enough protections to ensure that the University continue along its public-minded path and offers equal opportunity to all members of our community. As Jan Cornell, president of the Staff Union at U.Va., said, "I hope U.Va. remains public, but if the charter gets through, fine -- as long as all the protections are in place."
Indeed, the current lack of protections -- the core gripe of charter skeptics -â?? emerges from the administration's failure to open up the process of drafting the charter to all groups who will be affected with its passage. As Religious Studies Prof. Corey Walker asked, "How is it that such a situation comes out of a conversation where all the stakeholders are not at the table? How can we effectively respond to it when the framework for our response has already been dictated to us?"
In drafting the charter in a closed environment and failing to respond to important concerns with mere promises, the administration has failed hugely. Not only has it failed in safeguarding the public mission of the school by introducing a bill that has too few standards, but it has also failed in pushing forward a bill that has the best chance of passing. The powers that the charter initiative contains are important for the University and vital for our community's future, but they require some fundamental regulation within the charter itself.
We live in an uncertain world, and if the University will be more isolated in it, we must guarantee the equal opportunities of the vulnerable before we safeguard abstract concepts like administrative autonomy. This is a reasonable and necessary request. The administration erred in disregarding this qualm in drafting the charter. It allowed a fight that shouldn't have begun in the first place. Now it continues its error by failing to reach out to stakeholders and instead giving Richmond a proposal that will face stiff opposition, decreasing the likelihood we will secure any measure of autonomy at all.
The administration seized on a bold and vital vision in the charter: that the University can guide its own public mission. After watching the administration push the charter forward, however, questions arise over whether it is responsible enough to do that. Administrators still have two months until the General Assembly considers the charter -- two months to reach out to the concerned and advance a document the entire community can stand behind. For the good of the University, let's hope they do it this time around.
Michael Slaven's column normally appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.