by James A. Bacon
Helen Dragas burst into public view two years ago when, as rector of the University of Virginia Board of Trustees, she led an attempted ouster of UVa’s popular president, Teresa Sullivan. The Virginia Beach home builder lost the ensuing power struggle, publicly reconciled with Sullivan, stepped down as rector but remained on the board. Though rendered a minority voice, she has re-emerged as a counterweight to the president. Today, in an op-ed piece in the Times-Dispatch, she went full frontal with her concerns over the university’s direction.
In April, the board voted to jack up in-state tuition and fees by 4.3% for entering first-year students this August and by 5.9% for out-of-state students. Total cost for an in-state resident, including room, board and travel expenses will increase to $27,417.
Dragas was one of three board members who voted against what she describes as “unsustainable cost increases for students and parents.” UVa tuition has more than doubled in a decade while median family incomes adjusted for inflation in Virginia fell about 5%. University officials — Dragas never mentions Sullivan by name — cannot use the excuse of declining state support. State support is projected to increase 8% next year. According to the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV), when the university’s medical center and non-academic enterprises like athletics are excluded, taxpayer dollars provide almost half the cost of an undergraduate education.
Most of the windfall, writes Dragas, will pay for “hefty salary increases for faculty and staff and augment generous retirement and health benefits that will now approach 40 percent of base salaries for full-time university employees.” Some of the increase will go to the “band-aid of financial aid that cannot keep up with the affordability gap.”
It is becoming increasingly clear that the top priority of the university’s leadership is to maintain the prestige of the institution as one of the nation’s top-ranked universities by pumping up compensation for faculty and staff to aid with recruiting, even if it means eroding the mission of providing an affordable education for Virginians. My sense is that many faculty and staff feel little kinship with the state they reside in; they see state ties as a hindrance to the pursuit of national and international prominence. Many would love to rid themselves of a board appointed by Virginia’s governor and a governance system that allows pests like Dragas to question their goals.
Dragas makes an extraordinary statement in her op-ed. “Parents and students alike should organize to be more demanding consumers, require detailed data about how their tuition dollars are spent, question investments that don’t improve learning and advocate against using a tuition hike as the default to balance every short-term budget.”
In effect, she is saying, parents and students should organize to protest the policies of UVa’s administration and board of Trustees. As a graduate, and one who greatly values the experience I had there four decades ago, I quite agree. I stopped donating to the university years ago (not that they’ll miss my contributions). I believe Mr. Jefferson’s university has lost its way. And I am happy to make this blog available to anyone who has a serious critique to offer.