by James A. Bacon
The University of Virginia’s controversial $2.2 billion Strategic Investment Fund is such a great idea that UVa officials are recommending it as a model for other state universities.
By adopting UVa’s approach and consolidating university reserve funds statewide, a sum that could approach $9 billion, the Commonwealth could establish an investment fund that would generate $450 million annually in extra income, UVa Rector William H. Goodwin said Monday at a Board of Visitors meeting, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Vice Rector Frank Conner also recommended the investment strategy for other Virginia public universities. “A lot of people will be calling us,” he said. “This is very creative.”
Members of the UVa board are upset by questions swirling around the creation and purpose of the fund, the existence of which was revealed publicly in a Washington Post op-ed last month by former Rector Helen Dragas before the university could manage the roll-out. Questions have arisen regarding where the money came from and why it won’t be used to dampen tuition increases rather than fund programs to enhance the university’s prestige.
Board members pushed back yesterday against outside criticism. It is “a shame we’re getting arrows in the back for being first,” said James B. Murray Jr.
Barbara J. Fried said the university needed to do more to “overcome lying sound bites.”
But the university has been slow in explaining exactly how UVa’s Strategic Investment Fund was accumulated. A month ago, the official explanation was that the money was cobbled together from $385 million in operating reserves, $620 million in “unrestricted funds and related earnings that had accumulated in [the university’s] history,” and $700 million in earnings on those funds. The university provided no detail on the $620 million in “unrestricted funds and related earnings,” and legislators have called for an accounting.
Goodwin added a bit of new detail Monday. He credited Executive Vice President Patrick D. Hogan with, as the T-D put it, “finding efficiencies in operations during the past few years that, along with investment earnings, were used to create the fund.”
Bacon’s bottom line: Let’s make one thing clear: It is great news to discover that UVa has compiled a $2.2- to $2.3-billion pot of money. That money can do a lot of good.
Apparently, UVa, like other universities, kept a lot of cash sitting around in reserves yielding very low interest rates, and Hogan deserves credit for figuring out how to tap those funds to generate a higher return in other kinds of investments. Among other things, this involved negotiating a line of credit to maintain the university’s liquidity. The payoff from this financial restructuring could be huge. If Goodwin is right and the idea could be applied to other Virginia universities, the innovation could very well revolutionize higher education finance. (The idea must be viewed with caution, however. Not all institutions have a AAA credit rating like UVa; some may not be able to leverage their balance sheets in the same way.)
But no one is criticizing the board for being creative financial stewards and investing the money well.
People have legitimate questions about where the money came from. According to UVa’s own explanation, only $385 million of the seed funding came from operating reserves. Another $620 million came from what is described as “unrestricted funds and related earnings that had accumulated in its history.”
What the hell does that mean?
Well, we learn from Goodwin that a good portion if not all of that $620 million come from operating efficiencies — cost cutting. Again, Hogan deserves kudos for the achievement. But no one is criticizing him for running a tight ship.
These are the questions that people are asking: Should UVa have used the savings from cutting costs to blunt increases in tuition and fees rather than setting them aside and accumulating $620 million? Who set up this operational fund anyway? Did the Board of Visitors ever approve the strategy of setting aside and accumulating funds from cost-cutting initiatives, a strategic decision that should be made by the board and not the administration? Did the board approve handing those monies to the University of Virginia Investment Management Co. (UVIMCO) to invest? When the board recently voted to increase tuition for incoming students by 10%, were members aware that the university had accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars, plus investment returns, from cost cutting? Did board members give consideration to the possibility that the accumulation of those funds represented a form of overcharging students and their families?
Legislators want answers, and I don’t blame them.