Anxiety about a recent report recommending that the University break some ties with state overlooks what’s most interesting about the document
A Washington Post story published last week about a proposal that recommended the University break some of its ties with the state created a flurry of minor panic. The report in question was drafted in April by a working group made up of University faculty, administrators, students and alumni — one of seven such groups associated with the University’s strategic-planning process. This particular group was tasked with exploring what it means to be a public university in the 21st century.
The report tells us something interesting about the University’s oft-uneasy relationship with the commonwealth. But it’s not what you might think. The proposal for the University to strike away from the state is not a realistic suggestion. It is the result of lingering resentment. This resentment comes from two sources: first, a trend of declining state appropriations (though state funding increased by roughly $8 million in fiscal year 2013); and second, the attempted ouster of University President Teresa Sullivan, instigated by state-appointed officials, that left the school reeling last June.
Let’s consider what the report said. The working group did not argue that the University should become entirely independent. The group’s proposal was that the University forge a “new contract” with the commonwealth. Under the terms of this contract, in-state and out-of-state students would pay the same amount of tuition. This base tuition rate would be similar to what out-of-state students now pay. The state would grant the University more autonomy in terms of strategic decision-making. But the commonwealth would no longer give the school funding.
Roughly 10.2 percent of the University’s academic operating budget, and 5.8 percent of its total budget, comes from state appropriations. This percentage may seem slight. It is. But these funds totaled more than $150 million in the last fiscal year. Presumably the increased base tuition rate would cover this amount. Still, going private in all but name — which is what the proposal sounds like — is a bold financial proposition.
Luckily, it’s not a serious proposition. There is little danger that the University will cut ties with the commonwealth to the extent that the report recommends. Implementing the suggested “contract” would be near-impossible. It would require winning the approval of lawmakers, alumni and others to reshape the school in a way that is clearly at odds with the University’s self-understanding as an institution for the public.
So the working group’s report is valuable not as a basis for policy but as a thought experiment about what the state contributes to the University and what the University contributes to the state. And it seems clear that many at the University think the state-University calculus is unbalanced. As the report notes: on average, a dollar of state support for the University results in $3.45 of new spending in Virginia. So it is no wonder that a proposal to loosen ties would emerge. The proposal is, among other things, a potentially potent negotiation tactic. The University is flexing its financial muscle. It is telling the state: you need us more than we need you.
The group’s report is also colored by negative attitudes toward the Board of Visitors that linger from the June 2012 governance crisis. The report contextualizes challenges that public institutions face with a remark that purports to be general, but seems inflected by the University’s own experience: “State governments, as well as their appointed governing bodies, are attempting to exert more influence on decisions previously made by university leaders.” And elsewhere, the report insists that governing boards must avoid “intrusive and stifling micromanagement.” Former Rector Helen Dragas’ list of 65 goals for Sullivan comes to mind.
Further, the report calls for professional Board members. Board nominees, the report declares, “should meet a defined set of selection criteria focused on their knowledge of and experience with major issues involving higher education (i.e., industry competence), as well as their knowledge of and experience leading and governing large, complex organizations.” This recommendation implies that current Board members lack the necessary knowledge of higher-education issues — which was a criticism that arose in the ouster’s aftermath. If the Board were sufficiently well-informed about higher education, why impose the requirement? The report also insists that the selection process for Board members must change. It suggests an independent expert panel. Such a panel would both vet candidates thoroughly and serve as a safeguard against nepotism.
Any anxiety that the report provoked about the University going private is misplaced. The report is interesting not because it presents an achievable path for the University, but because it makes clear the tensions between the University and the state — and by extension, the University and the Board.