by James A. Bacon
Two state senators, one Democratic and one Republican, have dialed up the heat on the University of Virginia by calling for an investigation and forensic audit of a $2.3 billion fund that the university describes as a “Strategic Investment Fund” and ex-Board of Trustees member Helen Dragas characterizes as a “slush fund” for favored projects.
Sens. Chap Peterson, D-Fairfax, and Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, said the surplus operating monies accumulated in the account should be returned to Virginia students and families through lower tuition.
According to the Virginian-Pilot:
“As a senator, and as a citizen, I have more questions than UVA has answers,” DeSteph said in the statement. “There are families and students in Virginia Beach who are struggling to pay for college tuition, and I can’t explain to them why a public university is sitting on $2.3 billion. This was all done in closed session meetings, under the cover of ‘personnel matters,’ which I feel is completely inappropriate.”
Peterson added: “It is uniquely inappropriate for a nonprofit institution to consistently overcharge for its services – there is no legal authority for the university to do this, and no authority for its faculty or the board of visitors to spend these massive sums of money, which represent tuition and fees paid by thousands of working families who apparently have been over charged.”
The university administration presented its defense of the fund on the university website. The fund, the article states, will provide about $100 million a year for the university to pursue excellence at the university and its medical center without passing on additional costs in the form of tuition increases.
Bacon’s bottom line: Here’s what the argument boils down to. UVa says the money can be used to pursue excellence without jacking up tuition. Dragas, Peterson, DeStaph and others say the money could be used to actually lower tuition.
At a deeper level, this controversy reflects a difference in visions. The UVa administration and its allies on the Board of Visitors prioritize building a more prestigious institution. Here’s what Rector William H. Goodwin had to say:
Over the next decade, these investments should elevate the University to be among the top 10 universities in the nation, while keeping our net tuition costs among the lowest in the country.”
That’s the first time I recall anyone articulating the goal of lifting UVa into the ranks of the Top 10 universities in the country. It’s an extraordinarily ambitious goal because you can be assured that the universities standing between UVa and the Top 10 are doing everything they can to rise in the standings as well. (UVa ranks 26th nationally in the U.S. News & World-Report tally, third nationally among public universities.)
There is nothing inherently wrong with this goal. But money spent on pursuing excellence is money that cannot be rebated to students and parents paying a tuition that, despite all of UVa’s verbal circumlocutions, is massively higher today than it used to be.
My problem with the UVa administration is not the goal of putting prestige over affordability — I’ve often opined that we should let the university go private and be done with it — but the less-than-fully-transparent manner in which administrators have gone about achieving that goal.
UVa needs to come out and say, “Yeah, we’re going for Top 10. That’s going to cost a lot of money, and we’re going to jack up the tuition to help pay for it. As for that $2.3 billion fund, we’re keeping most of it to recruit star faculty, buy expensive lab equipment, and do other stuff in the pursuit of excellence. But we know affordability is an issue, so we’ll set aside a few tens of millions of dollars a year to ease the pain for the third of students with lowest incomes. Everyone else can suck it up.”
If UVa could come out and say that, we could have an honest and potentially fruitful conversation.There are currently no comments highlighted.