University President Jim Ryan sat down for an interview with The Cavalier Daily ahead of the full meeting of the Board of Visitors Friday to discuss the start of the spring semester and proposals that the Board will consider.
Approaching one year since it first adjusted operations due to COVID-19, the University is currently recovering from its largest outbreak in cases yet.
After experiencing a large uptick in COVID-19 cases within the first three weeks of the semester, the University banned all in-person gatherings and restricted student movement outside residences for 10 days starting Feb. 16. Since lifting restrictions Friday, Ryan said that the University has seen better compliance with public health guidelines.
“I always knew that February was probably going to be our toughest month,” Ryan said. “This is going to be with us for the entire semester, and I think continuing to battle COVID fatigue will be one of the biggest challenges that we have.”
During the third week of classes, the University community recorded over 700 cases of COVID-19. The spring semester has now seen 1,616 cases, surpassing the fall’s total of 1,548 last week. According to data collected from contact tracing and hospitalizations, however, Ryan said the University hasn’t seen evidence of community spread.
“[That] is great news because that's obviously one of the things we've been most concerned about from the very beginning,” Ryan said.
The University remains uncertain about what the summer will look like in terms of the pandemic. Ryan confirmed that the University is optimistic that it will return to normal or close-to-normal operations by the fall. Much of this will depend on vaccine distribution, he said.
The Blue Ridge Health District is currently vaccinating individuals in phase 1A and 1B, which include frontline healthcare workers and essential workers and people over 65-years-old. The health district states that “it will be March or April before BRHD is able to individuals 16-64 with high risk medical conditions.” President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the United States will have enough vaccines for all adults by May.
“There may be some masking restrictions that apply in certain situations, but I'm hoping that the sort of protocols that we're following now won't be necessary in the fall, and that there will be a lot more — if not all — classes in-person,” Ryan said.
This spring, just 27 percent of classes offer an in-person component. In-person instruction was permitted to continue throughout the University’s ban on in-person gatherings, as the University has maintained that it has seen no evidence of transmission within the classroom setting. All students and faculty are required to remain six feet apart and wear a mask at all times during in-person classes.
The Board’s’ Finance Committee will meet Friday to consider an increase in tuition and fees of up to 3.1 percent. During a public comment period Feb. 18, students urged the Board to hold off on a tuition increase, citing personal and familial revenue losses because of the pandemic and tuition freezes that other state universities — such as Virginia Tech, William and Mary and James Madison University — put in place during the 2020-2021 academic year.
After receiving a $5.52 million increase in funding from the state, the University was able to freeze tuition for in-state students during the 2020-2021 academic year, offsetting its planned increase of 2.9 percent. Out-of-state students, however, still faced a 3.5 percent tuition increase.
The University is still in conversation with Board leadership about tuition, which Ryan said is “a work in progress.”
“We're trying to do what we can to meet those costs without having to raise tuition, but obviously, you know, it puts pressure on it,” Ryan said.
Additionally, Ryan said that the University’s in-state tuition — which was $14,188 for students in the College during the 2020-2021 academic year — puts them at a competitive disadvantage with peer institutions with higher in-state tuition rates. Out-of-state tuition — now $48,036 for students in the College — is closer to market level, Ryan said.
Ryan explained that the bulk of the University’s costs are associated with personnel, so tuition has an impact on whether the University is able to compete for, retain and provide raises to faculty.
“We have to think about the long-term financial health of the University and about a desire to maintain excellence for everyone who’s here,” Ryan said.
The University’s financial aid program AccessUVA meets 100 percent of demonstrated need, so if tuition rises, financial aid packages will also increase due to increased need, he added.
Some community members have argued that the University can pull from its endowment instead of raising tuition. At the close of the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the University had an endowment of $9.9 billion. Ryan, however, explained that the endowment is restricted and not something that can just be pulled from depending on need.
“It is the amalgamation of a number of gifts to the University, most of which are targeted for a particular purpose,” Ryan said. “You can’t spend that money on something else.”
Additionally, Ryan said the University can only spend a certain percentage of its endowment every year — around 4.8 percent.
According to Ryan, the pandemic has cost the University over $125 million in revenue — this includes the costs of increasing testing and providing personal protective equipment but also the loss of housing and dining fees.
On-Grounds housing occupancy was at just 62 percent in fall 2020 compared to 98 percent in fall 2019, the Board’s Finance Committee notes. In response to the loss in revenue, the University has undergone an 8 percent budget cut in all central service units.
Ryan also commented on several updates on race, justice and equity initiatives. Last fall, the Board voted to recontextualize the Thomas Jefferson statue, remove the George Rogers statue and rededicate or remove the Frank Hume Memorial Wall, among other resolutions.
Since then, the University has also announced the creation of the Naming and Memorials Committee, which will establish protocols for naming — or renaming — buildings on Grounds, as well as making recommendations on contextualizing memorials.
The recontextualization of the Jefferson statue, the removal of the George Rogers Clark statue and the decision whether to remove or rededicate the Hume Memorial Wall will be taken up by the committee. While Ryan said that he expects a recommendation on the recontextualization of the Jefferson statue “fairly soon,” conversations about the George Rogers Clark statue and Frank Hume Memorial Wall have just begun.
“In terms of the racial equity task force report and the Board resolutions in particular, we've been making good progress,” Ryan said. “Going back to how much time needs to be and has been spent on COVID and doing other things, I've been pleased that we've been able to make some progress.”
The University is continuing progress to develop educational programming around race and place. The University is currently focused on hiring faculty in nine positions related to African and African American studies as part of its Race, Justice and Equity initiatives.
Additionally, Ryan notes the University increased funding for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which is led by Kevin McDonald, vice president for diversity, equity, inclusion and community partnerships. The University has also begun developing a Native American Indigenous Studies minor, increased matching funds for students of minoritized groups through the Blue Ridge Scholars Program and announced in January a $5 million Mellon Foundation grant toward “Race, Place and Equity.”
Ian Baucom, dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; Claudrena Harold, history department chair; Nicole Jenkins, dean of the McIntire School of Commerce; Ian Solomon, dean of the Frank Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy; and McDonald will direct the interdisciplinary undergraduate program supported by the three-year grant.
Last summer, the Board discussed implementing a required course for all students on racial equity, an idea that was advocated by the Black Student Alliance in 2017. One initiative the Race, Place and Equity program is considering is a series of short films that focus on a specific topic or theme within the history of the University, Charlottesville or Central Virginia, but the idea is still in its early stages, Ryan said.
“We want to offer an opportunity for all students to have some grounding in the history of the place that they’re coming to, and you can’t understand the history of U.Va. or Charlottesville or Virginia generally without understanding the history of race,” Ryan said.
The Virginia House and Senate recently passed legislation requiring public universities in Virginia to provide scholarships to the descendants of enslaved laborers who built those universities. Ryan said that he has not yet met with the University’s legal team to discuss the language in the legislation.
According to Ryan, discussions regarding scholarships for descendants of the University’s enslaved laborers suggest that there could be challenges to the University taking this step outside of legislation. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals previously ruled that race-based scholarships are unconstitutional.
Myra Anderson, a Charlottesville resident and descendant of the University’s enslaved community, is advocating for the school to extend scholarships to relatives. The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University proposed the initiative, among other reparative actions, in 2018.
“We’ve been talking about creating scholarships that at least have a preference for descendants of enslaved laborers because sometimes it’s difficult to identify,” Ryan said. “It is something that we're gonna have to take a look at and figure out exactly what we do in response.”
As a separate foundation from the University, the Alumni Association is able to fund race-based scholarships. The Association runs the Ridley Scholarship Fund, which “seeks to attract and retain the nation’s most meritorious African-American students,” and the University can encourage people to donate to that program.