Guest Columnist

Jack White


Public Ivys in Jeopardy


If legislators aren't careful, UVa and William & Mary may go private -- spurning state funding, hiking tuitions and recruiting students nationally. Virginians will be the losers.


Virginia, wake up. Our crown jewels may be slipping away.


High school graduates who reside in Virginia can attend several excellent public colleges and universities for relatively low in-state tuition. However, I want to focus on my two schools – together called our “Public Ivys” – The College of William & Mary and the University of Virginia.


My parents, very middle-class employees of state and local governments, could never have afforded Ivy League or similar private educations for my sister and me. It took all the resources they could muster to help me get an undergraduate degree at W&M and, later, a law degree at UVa.


For reduced in-state tariffs, I received truly world-class educations. My three children also attended state colleges.


Why sound an alarm? Increasingly, we hear talk of “privatization,” both from Charlottesville and Williamsburg – widely understood as loosening or even cutting historic ties between those two schools and state government. In this vein, my law school recently made a startling announcement. More about that later.


During the last decade, when UVa was preparing to launch a massive capital campaign, a university vice president and I privately discussed state support for UVa and other state schools, which was declining even then.


The gentleman told me that, historically, owners who do not provide at least 10 percent of the operating funds for an educational institution will lose their right of control. The Robbins family’s landmark $50 million gift to the University of Richmond tipped the scales, and Virginia’s Baptists were forced to give up the right to make the rules and appoint the governing board there. A few years later at Emory & Henry College, the Methodists gave up control in the wake of successful private fund raising by then-president Dr. Charles Sydnor.


The rumblings about privatization thus far have been mainly talk. State financial support for the two institutions, while declining, remains above the 10 percent threshold. Excluding the UVa Hospital, next year’s UVa budget will include 13.4 percent state funding; the figure at W&M will be 19 percent. Yet the talk persists.


Last fall, W&M President Tim Sullivan outlined for a group of alumni a proposal for sequenced disengagement of the college from the state. It would begin by taking control of mundane matters such as purchasing, then move in steps toward the core issues of rule-making and board appointment. What might embolden William & Mary to seek such independence?


The college now is poised to launch a massive capital campaign of its own, in response to huge cuts in state support. If it succeeds, as I believe it will, W&M will have elevated its money-raising prowess at least to the level of UVa, more than twice the size, whose much-heralded 1990s campaign raised just over $1 billion.


Of the $1 billion UVa raised back then, my law school contributed a bit over $200 million, or about 20 percent. It was said to be the largest single fund-raising effort by a law school in U.S. history.

And it happened because a good number of UVa Law’s graduates each year migrate to our nation’s centers of power and money, where they do extremely well. In return, those graduates have been generous to their school.


Much of this success is due to the school’s sterling reputation. UVa is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 10 law schools, public and private, and among the top five public law schools. Yet recently, UVa Law startled many with the announcement that henceforth it will follow “financial self-sufficiency.” In a letter to the school’s constituency, Dean John Jeffries deemed this a “watershed event” in its history.


In a nutshell, UVa Law will accept no more state money. The cost of running this famed institution will be borne mainly by its students, in the form of higher tuitions. The dean said UVa Law’s tuition will be “comparable to that of our competitors.” To a lesser extent, private giving will be used to help pay the bills.


UVa Law, which has also lost much state support, thinks its financial health will improve if it follows what essentially is the private-school model.

Tuitions at UVa Law’s peers -- Harvard, Yale, etc. -- now average about $30,000. With no state funds coming to UVa Law, in-state tuitions as such will be a thing of the past. Grants of $5,000 per year will be offered to Virginia students. For the immediate future, at least, that could put the cost of a Charlottesville legal education for our residents in the $25,000 range. In-state tuition at UVa Law’s is now $20,627, as compared with $11,900 at W&M and $9,123 at George Mason University.


University of Virginia officials previously approved the plan, and the dean’s letter gave assurances the law school will remain part of Virginia’s higher education system and subject both to state and university governance.


But over time – like parental control of a child who begins paying his or her own living expenses – state control of UVa Law will diminish. And officials of the larger University of Virginia, W&M and other state schools will be watching closely.


When the Baptists lost control of the University of Richmond, that once folksy unofficial college of our capital city and Southside Virginia quickly moved to refocus itself. Today, its orientation is regional and national, and its hefty tuitions make it hard even for students from our middle-class families to pay the costs without major financial subsidies.


It’s too early to say the same will happen to the whole of UVa or to W&M. But unless our state’s funding of its colleges and universities increases both dramatically and consistently, I would not bet against it.


The big losers would be our children, who might not be able to afford the stellar educations their parents enjoyed as in-state students at the University of Virginia and William & Mary.


-- January 13, 2003





















Jackson S. White Jr. is an Abingdon attorney. 

He can be reached at [email protected]


This column was published originally in the Bristol Herald Courier.