Time for transparency
LAST TUESDAY'S teach-in on the charter initiative was an example of democratic discourse in education at its best. Concerns were expressed eloquently by a panel of representatives of the diverse communities of faculty, staff and graduate and undergraduate students at the University, and a frank and even heated discussion about the potential effects of the charter followed their remarks.
All who attended left with a better sense of what this charter could mean to our school, and how the decisions of this administration might change our community for better or for worse.
It's a shame that those actually making the decisions weren't in attendance.
A shame, yet not a surprise. The administration has turned its back on a grand opportunity by adopting a paternalistic, secretive attitude about the charter initiative. Though the administration has made strides to inform the greater University community post facto in a series of briefings, the fact that all other members of the community were told, not asked, about the initiative has resulted in the frustration at a lack of information on display last Tuesday.
There lies much potential for much good in the charter status, and by not including the constituencies potentially most affected by this change in its creation, President John T. Casteen III and the Board of Visitors have missed the occasion to forge a powerful alliance. There is little to tie our loyalties to a state legislature that has proven itself out of touch with the needs and values of our community and has, above all, consistently underfunded our education. Freedom from the state could potentially mean living wages for contracted employees or even open the door for such progressive measures as domestic partners benefits. Yet rather than being upfront with us about these prospective benefits -- as well as honest about the potential disadvantages -- the administration chose to develop its charter plans behind closed doors, without input from the groups affected by it or willingness to address their concerns. Justifiably, this has caused faculty, students and the staff union to chafe an idea that was presented as good as done from the very beginning.
Casteen's article in the most recent issue of "Virginia," the Alumni Association's magazine, is the first time that many of us have seen the full language of the proposed legislation laid out, and its condescending tone of knowing what's best for the University better than those who have made it their home and workplace, as well as its grand promises of a solution to all our funding woes, are ringing a little hollow to many in the community. He explains, for example, that the charter would "free entities the state no longer wants to support from costly, often pointless, bureaucratic reform." Yet one professor on the panel pointed out the distinction between procedural deregulation, which would lessen the red tape and bureaucracy that hinder many of the University's actions, and substantiative deregulation, which would mean a much greater severing of the relationship, an important issue to consider in the debate. While there are few individuals that would argue against the need for the former, there are, understandably, quite a few concerns with the more substantial cutting of ties that comes with the latter. The responsibility rests with Casteen to explain why complete deregulation, rather than procedural reform, is necessary.
Furthermore, it's the administration's emphasis on ends over means that are making many groups uncomfortable. Casteen touts the fact that since it received codified autonomy, the University Medical Center "has been recognized as a top 100 hospital no fewer than five times," but the Medical Center employees in attendance last Tuesday expressed quite a different history of the past eight years, one which has seen their leave time cut and the replacement of steady raises with one-time bonuses. This administration must answer the fears of students that their tuition will rise to unaffordable levels and of employees that their benefits will be cut so that, like the Medical Center, the University can be recognized as top in the rankings.
The lack of administrative voice -- or more importantly, ear -- at last week's teach-in was indicative of the arrogance of its attitude surrounding the entire issue of the charter initiative. This initiative is unprecedented in its scope and would radically alter the shape of our university. Over and over again on Tuesday, members of the panel pleaded not against the charter, but simply for more information, and a more open dialogue. Some answers and openness from the administration are long overdue.
Katie Cristol's column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.