A Deep Dive into the Data that W&M Does NOT Collect

by James A. Bacon

In the previous post, I outlined how the College of William & Mary is pondering how to deal with the nation’s enrollment crisis. Although W&M has had no difficulty keeping its enrollment numbers up in the face of a 30% increase in the cost of attendance over the past five years, the administration does worry that it may be compelled to accept a higher percentage of applicants, thus eroding its perception as an elite university. (I know, I know, what a problem to have. Waaaah!)

In seeking guidance from the Board of Visitors in November, the administration laid out the horrifying specter that, given increased market resistance to higher tuition and fees, W&M might actually be forced to cut costs to maintain its long-term financial viability. Rather than think about the unthinkable, however, the administration proceeded to explore strategies for increasing revenue by increasing enrollment.

Cost cutting is to higher-ed institutions, it appears, as kryptonite is to Superman, daylight to Dracula.

Dive into W&M’s November Board of Visitors presentations, and you’ll see an endless list of new initiatives, many of them advancing the progressive agenda on diversity and climate change, and zero analysis of the university’s cost structure.

For instance, look at W&M’s Capital Outlays Projects Progress Report and you’ll find a detailed listing of projects in the works such as…

  • $122 million to construct a Fine and Performing Arts complex
  • $73 million for an Integrated Science Center
  • $37 million for an expansion of the Sadler Center student center
  • $2.7 million for the Tribe Field Hockey Center

…and many smaller projects, to be paid for with some combination of state funds, W&M bond issues, private funds, or maintenance reserve funds.

If I were a board member, I’d like to put those requests in context. How much does W&M have invested in buildings & facilities assets? What is the implied depreciation, and how much money should the university be setting aside for maintenance? How much will a new $122 million Fine and Performing Arts complex add to depreciation, maintenance and operations? How much square footage does W&M’s physical plant have? How does that translate into square footage-per-student? How over-utilized or under-utilized is that space? Has anyone conducted an audit to measure space utilization — or, better yet,  does the university have any means, as many in the private sector do, to measure space utilization on an ongoing basis? How does W&M’s space utilization compare to that of other institutions?

Perhaps W&M provides that information in other board meetings. But there was no indication in this November presentation on Administration/Buildings & Grounds, which was focused exclusively upon environmental sustainability. Ten working groups, we discover from that document, are discussing such topics as curriculum/research, carbon neutrality, and Greenhouse Gas reporting. Nowhere was the cost of attaining W&M’s climate goals alluded to, not even as an afterthought.

In another instance, look at W&M’s “2019-2020 Operating Budget Summary,” and you’ll find expenditures broken down by such categories as instruction, research, public service, academic support, student services, institutional support, plant operations, student aid, auxiliary enterprises and sponsored programs. But the only numbers you see are for 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20 versus the two-year budget. The budget summary doesn’t allow board members to inspect 10-year trend lines, much less to compare the trend-lines to the Consumer Price Index, cost per student, or costs for peer institutions. Perhaps such numbers can be found in other presentations made at other Board of Visitors meetings, but they were not in evidence in November.

One searches in vain for any analysis of manpower costs. The most obvious questions pertain to administrative bloat. Has W&M done a better job than peer institutions of curtailing the expansion of administrative staff? Does W&M run a lean organization? Has it deployed information technology to boost productivity of routine administrative tasks? Has it rationalized the administrative structure to eliminate redundancy and overlap? Or have staff positions proliferated willy nilly to accommodate new priorities?

Likewise, no one appears to track academic productivity. One document does produce a graph that shows the student-faculty ratio over an eight-year period. In the fall of 2013, the ratio was 12.43 students per faculty member. In the last year covered, the ratio had fallen to 11.7 students per faculty. Fewer students per faculty member is an indicator of declining productivity. Is this a long-term trend (as it appears to be on the chart) or a momentary aberration?

If faculty productivity has fallen, one wonders why. In the competition for big-name “star” faculty, is the university signing contracts that limit the number of classes (or the size of the classes) that professors are required to teach? Is teaching load being shifted to junior tenured faculty, instructors, and to adjunct faculty? Are average class sizes getting larger or smaller? Is student interest in certain subject matters shrinking, with the result that some classes are languishing? Is the university subsidizing low-enrollment departments?

How many Africana Studies majors are there? How many Judaic Studies majors?  Medieval & Renaissance Studies majors? Anthropology majors? Film study majors? Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Study majors? Do board members see a list of the number of majors enrolled in each department — along with the 10-year trend lines? Does the administration even capture information on:

  • Number of faculty per department (broken down by tenured faculty, instructors, graduate students, adjuncts),
  • Courses taught per department,
  • Majors declared per department,
  • Class enrollment per department, per faculty member

… along with 10-year trend data?

These kinds of questions go to the heart of the academic enterprise. But I don’t see this analysis done at William & Mary, or any other Virginia institution for that matter. And that makes me wonder. Do we not see this kind of analysis because board members aren’t demanding this information? Worse, do we not see this analysis because university administrations have no interest in the answers? Or worse yet, do we not see this kind of analysis because administrators lack the means to even collect the data and answer the questions if they wanted to?

Here is a list of W&M board members. If W&M administrators cannot be shamed into providing basic data, perhaps W&M board members can be shamed into demanding it.

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14 responses to “A Deep Dive into the Data that W&M Does NOT Collect”

  1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Look at that “2019-2020 Operating Budget Summary,” prepared for that last November William & Mary Board of Visitors meeting.

    I’ve long known that students, parents and the general public have no idea what is happening in America’s institutions of higher learning today.

    Now, if W&M’s 2019-2020 Operating Budget Summary be the norm for Board meetings, I strongly suspect that most members of most Boards of Visitors in America have no clue as to what is happening in their institution, either.

    Who is responsible here? Who is accountable? Who has the fiduciary responsibility for efficiently operating these public colleges and universities tasked with the primary duty of educating our children at a cost directly related to their education?

    Is there a substantial risk of a breach of duty here? If so, how is it remedied?

  2. Reed, I have no doubt that many members of the W&M BOV are sincere in their devotion to the school and have given extensively of their wealth or in some other manner to attract attention to their devotion. Many of them may also have substantial political skills. I also have no doubt that most of these BOV members were NOT selected based on their proven ability to run an efficient, transparently-funded institution, let alone an institution of higher education that’s peculiarly accountable to the public.

    In short, the most important criterion for BOV membership appears to be rewarding personal prestige; so why is it surprising that the BOV responds by placing such a high value on the institution’s prestige? Many of the BOV have given away substantial sums to the institution to enhance its reputation; so why is it surprising that the BOV places such a high value on appearances, on political correctness, as opposed to actual institutional productivity and educational value-per-dollar?

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Yes, I agree totally, and you make my case. But their roll as trustees is not so shallow, and far deeper and more critical. If taken seriously, that rolls demands that they probe for facts and educate themselves so they understand and deal with the truth of what is going on, and reject shallow appearances and chronic lack of transparently, and frankly, honesty. These kids are being very poorly served while they and their families pay enormous sums for little in return far more often than should be allowed. A sham is being foisted on our kids, their families and our nation. It must be stopped.

  3. Jim, you may have to dive through it a bit, but I suspect the answers to your questions are in board materials either in this session or prior sessions, or it is in SCHEV. In this board session alone, there is a 121 page summary of financial statements. It is in the pre-reading. You can see assets. You can see depreciation. You can see hundreds of other things. The Restructuring act requires a rating by one of the major credit firms. That summary is also included for the board and it has debt positions and ratios over time and forecast. SCHEV has degrees by major in significant detail. W&M has, like almost all colleges in the state, a master plan. The planning firm assessed utilization and required space by type. That plan was presented to and approved by the board. There is an extensive benchmark study in the September meeting that has comparative metrics on revenue, expenses, breakdown of staff by type, private giving, retention rates, etc. The buildings you cite are way down the runway (and some are purely donor driven). If they were going to be nipped in the bud, it would have had to have happened several years ago.

    So you are off on your due diligence for this post in my view. There is a wealth of information that the administration provides to the board. So much that I question how much is digested. The UVA board briefing book is typically hundreds of pages long. (I have pointed out some instances on your blog where I see administrative obscurantism at board meetings. Where did the strategic investment fund at UVA actually come from? Where does institutional funding for R&D come from? You won’t see direct answers to these questions.)

    I don’t disagree that the boards at colleges are largely captured by the administration or were natural boosters for the administration in the first place. They typically don’t think they are there to ask tough questions and rarely do, at least in public. They are largely status positions given for political reasons.

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Thanks, Izzo. And I know your last two sentences speak to a truth that has been a matter of great controversy for quite some time, both pro and con.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    BOVs are not unlike K-12 School Boards in many regards. Generally speaking, most of them are strong advocates of education and want as much as they can get in the way of resources to provide as much as they can – in the belief that wide/deep education is the basis of opportunity and the fuel of a good economy.

    And yes, they are grossly irresponsible about costs and yes are led by the nose by the administrators – and they all go and do battle with the BOS every year at budget time -and yes they contact all the parents and urge them to attend – with pro-school signs and buttons!

    And the truth is that K-12 and Higher Ed are essentially business operations and the BOV or school board member – unless finance and operations is their field -they’re really no different than many citizens looking at he provided budget info and trying to decipher it.

    If we REALLY want some level of accountability – the BOV needs to have the resources to hire it’s own budget analyst and they need to GA to empower them to actually have their own budget guy/gal sit in budget meetings.

    I think blaming the Universities for this is silly myself because almost none of the BOV actually function as stewards of the public money and you can lay that at the feet of the GA – who could institute requirements for BOVs to actually function differently than they do now – it’s basically a purposeful incestuous relationship with the schools they are supposed to govern.

    The schools themselves are in an educational arms race to build enterprises that attract enrollment by adding more and more programs and perks that appeal to potential “customers”.

    They’re no different than WalMart or Amazon in that regard.

    Many of them cultivate their “brand” and their “reputation” – just like companies that want you to “Rate them”…

    And each state – take Virginia – the GA is loath to do things that would mess with out-of-state enrollment…… keep the price high – make the product appealing – and subsidize Virginia students and above all compete toe-to-toe with other states higher ed.

    I do not think you can change this without basically putting the State in charge with it’s own bureaucracy which would be a cure worse than the disease.

    Can anyone here – name any institution of higher ed in the country that actually has an effective BOV that effectively controls the programs offered and tuition charged? If there are – even a handful – I’d be curious to know what is different that works.

  6. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    This discussion is one of the most astute analysis of higher ed finance that I have seen in a long time. I am going to pass it on to some people I know that are involved in higher ed finance.

    As for the BOV, aside from their obvious role as being a booster of their institution, it is unrealistic to expect them to get really deep into the finances of the institution. These are unpaid, part-time people, who have businesses to run or busy professional lives. As Izzo pointed out, they probably get a lot of the data they would need, but it is a mountain of paper. Who has time to go through that? So, they depend on the college’s administrators to summarize it for them.

    So who is going to ask the questions that Jim posed, as well as others. SCHEV is not. That organization is basically a booster of higher ed. DPB would be a logical agency to do so; but it does not have sufficient staff. Nor do the House Appropriations or Senate Finance committees. And, if they did ask these questions and condition their budget decisions on the answers, it would not do much good. If they do not get the state appropriations they request, the higher ed institutions can, and do, get the money they want by increasing tuition.

    There is now a process, required by law, in which higher ed institutions have to produce a strategic plan. The plan is a large document that is submitted biennially to DPB and the money committee staff. DPB staff and money committee staff meet with each college or university president, along with the upper management of the institution, and go over the plan. It is a lot of work for all involved that produces little tangible result, other than DPB and the money committee staffs get a little better insight into the operations of the institutions.

    Probably the best way to make the higher ed institutions responsible would be to freeze tuition. The Governor then would have to take a hard stand in requiring higher ed institutions to look very hard at their costs, with JLARC monitoring these cost reviews. All this would require a lot of political will and significant staff resources. In addition, it could not happen overnight; it would take at least a couple of years of diligent work.

    1. I know it’s easy to single out higher ed (and it deserves criticism), but…as we saw in 2009, governance is a problem across the board (pardon the pun).

      There was a brief moment in 2009-2010 when large institutions really did try to improve board member performance, but that’s gone away. Now, private, academic, and nonprofit boards are as clueless as they were in 2004-2008. Sure W&M’s BOV isn’t doing a good job, but do you honestly think your average F500 board member is doing a better job? Nope. These board seats have returned to being plums and political showpieces rather than a group of individuals who spend weeks pouring over reports and asking tough questions.

  7. The “strategic plan . . . is a large document that is submitted biennially to DPB and the money committee staff” — sounds familiar, especially to those of us who follow electric utility regulation and the (formerly biennial) “Integrated Resource Plan” filing requirement before the State Corporation Commission. At the SCC, this massive IRP filing, which on its face is impenetrably dense, is subjected to a public hearing, pre-filed testimony, cross-examination and rebuttal, briefing by all parties, and a final order (often imposing additional filing requirements to clarify points of contention). This thorough process elicits a lot of sometimes-high-level discussion prompted by experts of all persuasions.

    Perhaps the best assessment of the effectiveness of this process is from the utilities themselves, who have lobbied the GA to delay or scuttle the IRP requirement itself, as well as to pre-judge which of the Commission’s possible conclusions should be found “in the public interest.”

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    How to have an independent fiscal analysis of Higher Ed institutions?

    As Acbar has pointed out -holding the BOV to that task is just not a reasonable expectation.

    If the State REQUIRED each BOV actually have finance background – AND that their work product was an analysis and recommendation – sure, but that’s not the reality.

    But yet we heap blame on them for “not doing their jobs”!

    It’s kind of silly.

    The current makeup of most BOV are purposeful “plum” type goody rewards for the well-connected “movers and shakers” , etc.

    If they were actually required to do a fiscal analysis -most would quickly exit the job for greener pastures.

    So – the job of the critics – is not just to heap blame on BOVs but to recommend a viable way for what they want – to actually happen and to advocate for it – like other folks advocate for redistricting or marijuana, or teacher raises, etc.

    One way would be for the State to actually pay for a BOV staff finance officer who actually has access to ALL finance docs as well as sits in on finance meetings at the higher ed.

    Another way would be to task the State Auditor to do an annual analysis of each higher ed AND issue recommendations for the BOV to act on…

    JLARC might be a third…

    but the point here is that the BOV is not the group that has the expertise to do much even if they were so inclined.

    We have in Spotsylvania – parents and citizens on the School Board budget committee -but it’s a sham… they purposely appoint docile and clueless to occupy a seat and get scammed…

    The BOS in Spotsylvania has a more serious approach – they appoint a citizens’ committee that actually has retired finance people on it AND they mandate that both the county and the schools provide them with all relevant documents – and they have had to complain to the BOS about the schools who really are opposed to their role.

  9. The only institution I can think of that is running against the tide on tuition growth is Purdue. They have frozen tuition for 7 years. Their President, Mitch Daniels, is an anomaly. He is a former OMB director and Indiana Governor.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I like Mitch Daniels… no nonsense guy who does what he says…

      but he had support from the Trustees:


  10. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

    Impressive student to faculty ratio. I double checked the school course catalog. Your typical 101 class is 15 to 1 ratio. I don’t remember that at VPI. I seem to recall taking 101 classes in the old Lyric movie theater with hundreds of students. They passed out scantrons on test day like popcorn.

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    what are ” scantrons ” ?

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