Debate over “Slush Fund” distracts from the real issue

While it raises important questions, continuing inequality at the University matters more

As her tenure on the Board of Visitors came to a close, Helen Dragas penned an op-ed in The Washington Post this July detailing what she called a “$2.3 billion slush fund.” Accusing administrators of “hoarding” money for “pet projects,” the former rector suggested the money in what is formally known as the Strategic Investment Fund would be better put to use reducing (or perhaps eliminating altogether) tuition for financially squeezed students.

The administration, unsurprisingly, sees the fund differently. In UVA Today, Rector William H. Goodwin argued the fund’s investments will “align with the [University’s] strategic plan and will be consistent with our long-term financial plan and Affordable Excellence initiative,” and could go toward initiatives like specialized equipment, research labs or seed money for scholarships. While conceding that “Virginians who are striving to put their children through college have a fair question of why these funds aren’t being used in the moment to provide additional tuition assistance,” Goodwin ultimately affirms the fund’s role in ensuring the University’s long term vitality.

There are shades of truth in both accounts. But the board’s in-fighting only serves to distract from the issue of how the University can improve access to resources, financial and otherwise, for students in need. Dragas is correct that the recent Affordable Excellence tuition plan is hardly sufficient to address the higher education cost crisis. The University possesses one of the wealthiest student bodies in the nation, with only 13 percent of students receiving Pell Grants compared to 35 percent at the University of California-Berkeley or 22 percent at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. State legislators have actively contributed to this problem by allowing the University’s share of state funding to fall well below its peer institutions. This lack of socioeconomic diversity is also inextricably linked with the University’s precipitous decline in African-Americans as a percentage of the student body. All of this is to say that there is no universe in which the Board of Visitors should be satisfied with having solved the University’s ongoing access struggles.

At the same time, Goodwin is correct that Dragas is among the University’s “critics with personal agendas.” Though she admirably launched a multi-year rebranding campaign centered on her professed advocacy for low-income students, the fact remains that Dragas was the epicenter of one of the nation’s highest profile struggles over higher ed privatization in 2012 and has an axe to grind with Sullivan and other Board members. Goodwin is also right to note that ensuring the long term financial health of the University is a worthwhile goal in and of itself. Whether students like it or not, the reality is much of the University’s national status comes from the size of its endowment and its AAA bond rating.

That said, the Board of Visitors has its work cut out for it if it is to rebut the legitimate criticisms Dragas raises. It must focus more of its donor outreach on securing financial aid funding, work toward a long-term goal of meeting 100 percent of financial need without the use of loans and otherwise be more transparent with the public in its investments. State legislators criticizing the University for the fund may share blame for reducing state support for higher education, but this alone is no excuse the current state of affairs. With or without support from the Commonwealth, the University has to do better.

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