A Worthy Rant… but Not a Solution

David Ramadan
David Ramadan

by James A. Bacon

Del. David Ramadan, R-Loudoun,  fired with both barrels at the University of Virginia in a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed today. He voiced the same frustration that I periodically give vent to on this blog. UVa tuition policy — take from the rich and give to the poor — is exactly what Ramadan says it is, a “outrageous” redistribution of wealth.

Under the moniker of “affordable excellence,” the UVa Board of Visitors has just approved one of the highest tuition-and-fee increases in the country. Then, writes Ramadan, “in an effort to justify the vote, board members have said “asking affluent families to shoulder more of the expense is absolutely not a tax, but a reduction in subsidy when they are already receiving a low-cost education.”

The university should be cutting costs instead, Ramadan argues, starting with the sale of the corporate jet and reducing administrative overhead. Does the UVa president really need a personal chef and more than a dozen assistants, some of who are making six-figure salaries?

As for the university’s obsession with prestige, he says, “Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, a publicly supported school with national character and stature serving Virginians — not an aspiring ‘ivy’ for the elite and out-of-state students. … The vast majority of Virginia’s families who make more than $100,000 a year — some of whom wisely began saving for college the year the first child was born — have been boxed out.”

Does the UVa president really need a personal chef and a dozens assistants? Does senior management really need a corporate jet? Yeah, I have problems with all that. The symbolism is as bad as the money. Such perks insulate the university top brass from the travails of the us muggles. They can’t relate to our problems. Indeed, I suspect they largely regard as us parochial and mean-spirited.

But you can slash all of those expenses, saving maybe $2 million or $3 million a year, and systemic problems remain. You can’t shrink administrative staff without addressing the university’s mission creep. You can’t control faculty payroll without addressing the role of tenure and teaching workloads. You can’t trim student fees without eliminating a lot of programs serving vocal special interests.

Unfortunately, other than vent, there’s not much that legislators like Ramadan can do. Virginia’s higher education system is highly decentralized, and UVa is largely self-governing. Legislators can’t even influence the appointment of like-minded members of the Board of Visitors — that’s the governor’s perk. As for us muggles, all we can do is stop stroking fund-raising checks.

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22 responses to “A Worthy Rant… but Not a Solution”

  1. I agree that the optics of a jet can be easily addressed yet don’t move the spending needle much. But I disagree that there is little legislators can do. The lever (though possibly the ONLY lever) they have is to drastically reduce funding to force universities to get serious about addressing mission creep and overspending on staff. It’s happening elsewhere:
    • Wisconsin – Scott Walker: $300M
    • Louisiana – Bobby Jindahl: $400M
    • Arizona – Douglas Ducey: $75M
    • Kansas – Sam Brownback $17M
    • Illinois – Bruce Rauner $387M
    It takes a steely legislature and a governor in synch, but the message is loud and clear. Ramadan could propose that the Commonwealth “save” the funds denied to higher ed and mete out rewards for efficiency or responsible planning.

  2. Yes the symbolism is awful. I’m afraid it’s merely symptomatic of what has happened throughout corporate America over the past 40 years, where executive salaries have far outstripped those in lower tiers, as Boards yield to the logic that a happy CEO with a full complement of perks is worth more to the bottom line than management efficiency and market competitiveness.

    So, as we look at a UVa deeply committed toward a privatized way of life, can we be surprised that the Administration there is compensated in a way commensurate with most private educational institutions? Isn’t looking to the State legislature to impose a politically-correct pay-scale merely symbolism also? And in any event too little, too late, given the State’s lack of leverage on the Grounds these days?

    And what did we all say when the Rector of the BOV tried to hold the President accountable for planning a newly efficient, more business-like, University of the future?

    1. Cville Resident Avatar
      Cville Resident

      Acbar…your comment is dead on…..I read a lot of these anti-U.Va. comments and rants….but U.Va. in 2015 is a product of Reaganism and is no different from any other public flagship. Starting in the 80s, American society came to believe that the private sector was sacred and “Greed is good.” And it’s continued……every year we see more and more “privatization” efforts from parking meters in Chicago to prisons in Virginia to the gov’t contracting thieves in NoVa. U.Va. is just symptomatic of the privatization of American society since Reagan came to power. Outside of tuition hikes, when has a Virginia Governor or legislature really cared about our state Us except for “hot button” topics that are the news of the day? I can’t tell you the last legislator that took an active interest in the goings-on of Tech, U.Va., JMU, W&M, etc. They’ve basically “privatized” them in an unofficial way.

      I am rather shocked that Mr. Bacon (who seems to be a rock-ribbed GOPer) posted this. I am also shocked that a Republican wrote it. It’s really a nostalgia piece…for a simpler time when the folks in Richmond and Raleigh and Sacramento actually played a semi-active role at U.Va., UNC, and Berkeley. Years ago, the states basically said, “We’ve got bigger fish to fry in terms of what we deal with…We’ll cut you a check that will shrink more often than not and we’ll appoint your Board….but that’s it, fend for yourselves.” U.Va. is not unique. States just don’t play active roles in public universities and most haven’t since the 70s. Thus, they’ve become their own semi-autonomous units with a “distant tie” to the state. Does anyone really think Ramadan would think about U.Va. if the BOV had held tuition steady? He wouldn’t give the school a second thought. Which is an enormous problem with his rant.

      The Richmond Clown Show has dug this hole itself. It didn’t care about its public universities and basically said, “Fend for yourselves, we’ll send a check every year.” And it’s probably a hole that can’t be filled. The 3 major schools (U.Va., VPI, W&M) have grown so large with such expanded missions and such tiny funding from the state that it’s ridiculous to think Richmond can come in and now say, “but we give you 5 or 6 percent of your funding….do what we say!”

      1. Fascinating comment. Completely wrong but fascinating nonetheless.

        There has been no reduction in government spending in the United States. There has been no tilt to the private sector.

        Here is total government spending (as a percentage of GDP) from 1980 through 2012 … http://bit.ly/19PUEAd.

        Reagan came into office in 1981. Does it look to you like he curt back on government spending?

        1. The Commonwealth of Virginia has continued to spend more and more.

          From FY2000 – FY2009 (on a per capita basis) Virginia’s state spending grew 28% while inflation ran at 25%.

          The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond’s cuts to support for higher education has nothing to do with austerity, Ronald Reagan, Republicans, conservatives, the private sector, greed or Jim Bacon. The clown show’s spending grew faster than population growth and inflation combined. They had plenty of money to continue supporting higher education at historical levels. The simply chose not to do so.

          This November we need to do one thing …

          Throw the bums out!


          1. larryg Avatar

            a chart of spending for education over time – at the State and Federal level might be illuminating.

          2. larryg Avatar

            of course if we really want to look at realities – we’d compare our spending on education and our performance to other countries.

            like health care – we have among the best higher ed in the world as well as the most expensive… and eve though we spend more on K-12 we rank 25th.

            While Europe and Japan focus mostly on core academics, our K-12 actually shies away from it and instead goes for a mile wide, inch deep curriculum.

            Then on higher ed – we have an attitude that we deserve State and Federal subsidies for ANY course of study -no matter whether there is a demand for that in the marketplace or not.

            I continue to argue that the sole purpose of the use of tax dollars for education is not for Johnny to find his way in life but to provide Johnny with a minimum basic job-enabling education and if Johnny wants more – then it’s up to Johnny and/or his parents to invest their own assets and sweat equity to accomplish their personal goals.

            taxpayers should not “owe” each student whatever higher ed goal they “want”.

            I think this is where we have gone wrong – the mindset is to “follow your dream” and the govt will pay for it.

            the “dream” for Govt – for taxpayers is to equip each student with the specific education needed to become gainfully employed and a taxpayer himself.

            we have too many of us that suck up education resources but are not readily employable..or they are but the cost was substantial, not the least of – costs to taxpayers.

            okay – complaints made – now what to do.

            We need to CUT funding to higher ed – and focus it to specific students on a means-tested basis – and have it work like a voucher – the same way we have talked about K-12 vouchers and now Medicare Vouchers.

            give the govt assistance but limit it and require sweat equity as part of the bargain. Get out and get a part-time and/or summer job – as a condition of getting assistance – similar to how we say people who get welfare should

            Two. Limit govt loans – do not make them open-ended – but capped proportionately similar to how we do tax exemptions and subsidized flood insurance.

            our policy to this point is that ANYTHING labeled as “education” is a good thing that the govt should pay for and the Universities has made that concept an integral part of their business plans – i.e. they will endeavor to provide as much “education” that any student is willing to get got subsidies for.

            Finally – we need to recognize that govt “assistance” to higher ed is no different that govt “assistance” to other things – like welfare, Medicare, MedicAid, etc and that it must be means-tested and capped – not open ended because if it is open ended the Universities will exploit it to the maximum extent possible as they endeavor operate their institutions.

            To the University -hiring more professors is not a cost to the Govt as much as it is an expansion of their operations to serve a “greater need”

          3. Strangely, I feel myself agreeing with Larry regarding his comments on the proper role of government subsidies of higher ed.

          4. larryg Avatar

            we’ve developed an attitude about education that any and all is good –

            and that is a good thing.

            but then we’ve decided the govt should pitch in and help with any/all and that’s not good because it encourages an “a ll you can eat” mindset that we simply cannot afford, in part, because some of it is not value-added at all for the productivity and economic benefit but rather for the edification of the student and his parents.

            the justification for taxpayer money for education is to produce educated contributors to the economy as well as personal edification.

            so we should incentivize education – no question about it – but like our tax code and other govt entitlements – it should be capped and let the beneficiary add their own sweat equity to get more value.

            I cannot imagine a more wasteful thing than for a kid to go to college – never work a day towards helping to pay for that college – and end up with tens of thousands of dollars of debt at graduation.

            what in the world is happening to us – when we think that is normal?

            we blather on and on about personal responsibility all the while- while we suck mightily on that govt teat ourselves.

  3. The State has less leverage, true . . . although, the Governor still appoints the BOV. The 3 major schools you mention lost the fight for an independent BOV when the ‘Chartered Universities’ bill failed to pass the GA in 2004. It’s hard to see how far as a practical matter they can move towards independence so long as their BOVs are subject to political appointment. Mr. Goodwin has his hands full.

  4. larryg Avatar

    I ask again – what is the purpose of govt in education? Is it to insure that every student is accorded a basic fundamental education or to provide him with every option for the to achieve their goals in life?

    I’m serious here.

    what is the purpose of tax dollars?

    I think we have gotten away from the basic purpose of tax funding of education both K12 and Higher Ed.

    I think it is up to the kid and the parents to take the kid beyond the basic education to the goals they want to achieve that are over and above the basics.

    we’re screwed up K-12 by trying to offer much more than core academic and at the same time have damaged the quality of core academics in trying to offer more and more to those who are college-bound.

    I think the same thing about higher ed. If you want your kid to excel – then fine – but beyond the basics – it’s not on the taxpayer dime – or should not be.

    I think it’s actually a little humorous that we have folks who claim to be Conservative – complaining about the things over and above a basic college education that they want but begrudge the Universities for charging an arm and a leg for.

    1. Cville Resident Avatar
      Cville Resident

      I agree with a lot of what you have written on the topic. I don’t see why states just don’t stick to community colleges and get out of the rest of higher ed.

      I do find it amusing that a market enthusiast like the disHonorable Ramadan has a problem with price and the market. If U.Va. is overcharging, there should be fewer applicants and price should adjust.

      As I’ve written…people aren’t stupid…..they see that the beloved “market” has created a society where almost all of the economic benefits go to the top 5 to 10 percent of the population. The way to get there in contemporary America is either through the Valley or getting a prestigious graduate degree. U.Va. is one of the few universities in America that can get you into one of those prestigious graduate programs. If you have a son or daughter, you’re going to do and pay anything you can to give your son or daughter a shot at being in America’s top 5 to 10 percent…….by 2030, that bottom 90% is going to be a rough place to be.

      Perhaps if we had a more equitable society where the economic benefits were spread a little more evenly throughout the population, these major universities wouldn’t have such pricing power as parents wouldn’t feel such intense pressure to get kids into a university that has access to the “promised land” of prestigious graduate programs.

      1. “If you have a son or daughter, you’re going to do and pay anything you can to give your son or daughter a shot at being in America’s top 5 to 10 percent…….by 2030, that bottom 90% is going to be a rough place to be.” This is precisely the voice of a middle or higher class parent.

        UVa has as its mission to offer education to students who qualify academically, not financially. What of the applicants with no parents, or students with even wealthy parents who are not paying their tuition? Finding out that you need to earn and additional 3.9% of tuition plus $1000 between now and late August may cause them to drop out.

        Explicitly, UVa was created to serve them, not the artificial aristocracy created by wealth and birth. The Top List UVa should strive to for as #1 is Affordability.

          1. ********* It was.***************

  5. The other element of this “rant” and several others that have come out ensuing the UVa meeting is the lack of transparency on this proposal. I don’t agree that the US has been on a decades long trajectory toward privatization in all things; I see cyclical trends in various applications. But when the VP of Management and Budget defends this tuition plan by saying that it puts UVa “in line with peers like Georgetown University and Duke University” http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/uva-board-of-visitors-approve-series-of-tuition-increases/2015/03/25/fb2c4494-d322-11e4-8b1e-274d670aa9c9_story.html it’s time for a reality check and push back on the pendulum. If the current administration and BOV wish to privatize, then they ought to declare so and let the negotiations with General Assembly and taxpayers begin. With all those 6-figure salaries they may even be able to afford the $8B price tag. Ramadan is sounding a horn in case the drift goes unnoticed.

    Also, state funding provides closer to 11-13% of support of UVA–tricky figures to slice & dice.

  6. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    Also, if you want to know what’s really driving all this, take a read here:


    Again…it’s all about prestige and getting a kid in the top 5 to 10 percent.

  7. wesghent Avatar

    Amazingly, Jim Bacon and I could probably agree on matters of over-spending, over-paying and other forms of fiscal irresponsibility at UVa or any other educational institution. The high-spending and pseudo-corporate lifestyles suggested here by him and by Del. Ramadan are quite obnoxious to me. I believe, however, that the UVa board itself must monitor and control (albeit from proper distance) the income and expense activities of the University, in keeping with their fiduciary and moral responsibilities. HAVING THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY FIDDLING AROUND IN THOSE MATTERS WILL NOT WORK. But integrity, oversight and accountability can and must rule the day … every day. Here again, it all goes back to the board of visitors: no leadership on their part? Then no world-class university. Yes, it’s just as well that the State allocates so little, “for when little is given, little control can ensue.” In sum, if Virginia has an exemplary governor, then its state university boards will probably be high-caliber; if the governor lacks stature, then his/her appointments to boards will be inferior, and our institutions will suffer and decline. As I look back over 70 years or so, I’d say that Virginia’s governors have batted at least 75% in picking board members for our universities. Our governors should be chosen with more care and with greater voter participation; further, they need two terms to have an impact, especially on a legislature that continues in lethargy. A strong governor with a citizens’ mandate might stir up the General Assembly to significant action. As always, we get what we vote for … or don’t.

  8. larryg Avatar

    I think UVA and other Universities and Colleges should offer an affordable – but basic degree that is available to anyone who has the academic qualifications – and that is what the state funds.

    everything north of that should be fee-based cafeteria style and state-funded only on a means-tested basis for those who truly cannot afford it.

    we simply cannot afford to pay soup-to-nuts for every person. Taxpayers cannot afford it and when you come right down to it – many kids and their parents cannot afford it either even with loans.. they are over their head financially.

    we really have perverted both K-12 and higher ed to be whatever each kid or parent wants for their own goals -no matter the cost – because it’s subsidized and funded by taxpayers and there is a real question as to whether there is an ROI – for taxpayers..

    what would we say is or should be the ROI for taxpayer-funded higher ed?

  9. larryg Avatar

    I was messing around trying to see how much funding Va provides for higher ed in Virginia – vs the number of enrolled students.

    I believe the funding is about 7 billion and perhaps 30,000 students.

    but that sounds wrong because if you do a straight divide -you come up with more than 50,000 per enrollee.

    so where have I gone wrong?

  10. larryg Avatar

    I had some bad numbers on total enrollment which is closer to 450,000.

    still if one divides 450,000 into 7 billion = 15K per year per student.

    this is operational and does no include capital facilities.

    this seems to be a huge number to me.

    and it does not include the loans that many students get.

    can our commenter from SCHEV weigh in on this?

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