Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

Read All About It: The Virginia Way

Former Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling

In his defense, you must realize that Bill Bolling is not a lawyer, so he couldn’t do what some lawyer-legislators do at the end of their careers and become a judge.  With the Virginia Retirement System’s pensions based on the highest salary period, you must top out as governor or attorney general or a cabinet member or judge, something with a real salary if you want that monthly thank-you-for-life from the taxpayers to have any zeroes on it.

It was just a few hours ago I was in a conversation saying that arrogance was the sin that sank the Democrat legislative majorities in Virginia and would soon prove fatal for the Republicans.  I can think of no more potent example of arrogance and entitlement-thinking than the Richmond Times-Dispatch account of how former legislator and lieutenant governor Bolling found his way to a six-figure salary at James Madison University.

As the lede paragraph makes clear, that VRS pension amount was front and center in the discussions.

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UVa Doubles Down on Its Obsession with Race

Flaming assholes. Torch-wielding white supremacists marching at UVa last year — a useful distraction from what really ails American society.

This news is almost a month old, but I hadn’t seen anyone else pick it up, so here goes… The University of Virginia will create 20 new research professorships in “Democracy and Equity” to examine “underlying causes” of the white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville last year.

Each of the 20 professorships will be funded by $1 million in donor commitments matched one-for-one by UVA’s Strategic Investment Fund. The Board of Visitors approved the group’s recommendation to set aside $20 million in matching funds to support faculty research and teaching around “related social, cultural and political issues.” Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Higher-Ed Edition

Modest UVa tuition increase. The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors has approved a 2.9% increase in-state tuition increase for undergraduate College of Arts & Sciences students next academic year, although other schools in the university may differ. The university’s financial aid program, Access UVa, will keep pace with tuition increases, reports the Daily Progress.

The board’s Finance Committee said it had exhausted other options before considering slight increases to undergraduate tuition but believed 2.9- to 3.5-percent increases in most schools are necessary. The increases represent only a modest premium over the 2.3% increase in the Consumer Price Index between September 2017 and September 2018. The modest price hikes (modest by comparison to past years) coincides with a $2.2 million increase in state support in Fiscal 2020.

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Fralin Donates $50 Million for Roanoke Research Center

Heywood Fralin

Heywood Fralin, his wife Cynthia, and the Horace Fralin Charitable Trust have announced a $50 million gift to Virginia Tech to attract top-ranked scientists to the university’s Roanoke medical research center. The gift is twice the size of the university’s previous single largest donation.

“I came up with the size based on what I felt I could do. I wanted to make a maximum gift that was a challenge to me and to the trust because I thought it was important to the community. And I thought it could benefit everyone, and it would have a lasting impact that would help to change the future of the Roanoke Valley and the surrounding area,” Fralin said in a Wednesday interview with the Roanoke Times. Continue reading

State Colleges Face New Financial Stress Test

Source: Auditor of Public Accounts

The Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts has applied a nationally-recognized strategic financial analysis tool to Virginia’s fourteen public colleges and universities, revealing that only one – the University of Virginia – has a strong financial foundation and several are vulnerable to stress.

The work done by Eric Sandridge, Director of Higher Education Programs at the APA, was published in a full report in late October and was summarized in a presentation to the House Appropriations Committee on November 13.  It is the first of what are planned to be annual reports tracking the results over time, focused on the same kind of risk created for the state by stressed local governments.

The key composite financial index (CFI) he used has a ten-point scale. “A score close to one indicates that the institution may be very light on expendable resources and have difficulty meeting operating demands in the current environment,” Sandridge wrote in his main report. Longwood University, Christopher Newport University, Norfolk State University and the University of Mary Washington have all had recent years with a composite score of one or below.

A CFI score of three is considered healthy and of one is concerning. And then there is UVa. Source: APA

The College of William and Mary’s scores have only barely exceeded a one on this scale in recent years, but look far better when the financial resources held in its foundation are factored in. Several of the schools see better scores with their foundations included in the measurement. But not all have substantial endowments.

A score of three “generally indicates that an institution is financially healthy,” Sandridge wrote in his report. Even with their foundations included, eight of the fourteen schools miss that mark, although Radford University is close.

The University of Virginia is everybody’s rich uncle, to the point Sandridge pulls it out of some averages. VMI’s endowment is also off the charts for public schools of that size thanks to its loyal alums.

CFI Test with foundation resources included, improving the position of several schools. Source: APA

“The Composite Financial Index or CFI combines four core ratios by assigning various weights to generate an aggregate score for financial strength and stability. These ratios: Primary Reserve ratio, Viability ratio, Net Operating Revenues ratio, and Return on Net Position ratio provide for an understanding of the institutions’ available resources and results of current operations,” is how Sandridge summarized the method, devised by the accounting firm of Prager, Sealy & Co., LLC.

The various financial tests, similar to those a business analyst might use, look at the schools’ debt, the comparison between their operating revenue and expenses and available reserves. Their auxiliary enterprises are measured, along with their endowment and the investment success on that endowment. The age of facilities is factored in. Enrollment trends count. The haves and have nots comparison that results is stark, but it is not clear just what if anything the state might do about it.

One possible conclusion:  Virginia is the only school well-positioned to fully end its status as a state school.

Sandridge was the APA expert called in when the University of Virginia’s Strategic Investment Fund was making headlines, and the legislative attention on that issue might have sent the state looking for a deeper analysis tool.

One of the slides he used with the House broke down endowment divided by student head count, and the disparity there really underlies much of the rest of the report. The per capita amount at the University of Virginia exceeds $260,000 and the per capita amount at George Mason is just one percent of that, about $2,600.

You don’t get more have and have not than that.

Where Will 30,000 More Tech Degrees Come From?

There are many moving parts to the Amazon, Inc., deal to invest $2.5 billion and hire 25,000 employees in Northern Virginia. In one of the most important deliverables, the Commonwealth has committed to increase the number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and related fields by 25,000 to 35,000 over and above the already-ambitious baseline forecast over the next two decades.

Peter Blake, executive director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), says the goal is achievable but it won’t be easy. The number of students graduating from Virginia high schools is not forecast to increase substantially in the near future. If the baseline student population isn’t increasing, where will the IT degree seekers come from?

He sees four places to find the students to earn those degrees.

  • More college-ready high school graduates. On average about 72% of Virginia high school graduates continue their education at college-level institutions. One way to increase the number of tech-degree seekers is to boost the percentage of high school graduates who pursue higher education.
  • Improved college retention. Only 70% of the students who enter college manage to earn a degree within six years. Virginia can bolster the talent pipeline by reducing the college dropout rate, thereby increasing the retention rate.
  • Improved “recovery” of college dropouts. Tens of thousands of Virginians have earned college credits but failed to earn degrees or credentials. Potentially, the higher-ed system can coax some of these college dropouts back into school to complete their degrees.
  • More out-of-state students. If all else fails, Virginia can increase admittance of out-of-state students into Virginia higher-ed institutions.

“We have to step up in each of those areas,” Blake says. “Business as usual won’t get us there.”

The deal makers negotiating the Amazon package anticipated some of these issues. The Governor’s website explains how it expects to build Virginia’s talent pipeline.

  • Bachelor’s degrees. To expand the number of bachelor’s degrees, the Commonwealth will establish a performance-based tech talent investment fund, with General Assembly approval. This fund will enable higher education institutions across Virginia to receive startup funds for faculty recruitment, state capital investment (where required), and enrollment funding to expand the number of bachelor’s degrees the institutions confer annually in computer science and closely related fields (e.g., computer engineering).
  • Master’s degrees. To expand the number of master’s degrees, the Commonwealth plans investments of up to $375 million for academic space and operational support over the next 20 years. These performance-based, master’s degree investments will be provided to George Mason University for its Arlington campus and Virginia Tech for a new campus expected to be located in Alexandria.  Those institutions must match the state commitment dollar-for-dollar.
  • K-12. Virginia will invest $25 million in the K-12 STEM and computer science experience for students and teachers over the next 20 years.

Blake offers no comment on whether those resources will be adequate. Legislators will have to decide whether they will be adequate. Here’s my concern: The General Assembly can set aside money to increase the institutional capacity to provide ~30,000 more advanced degrees, but that’s no guarantee that the so-called “talent pipeline” starting with K-12 schools can increase the supply of students with the aptitude and desire to earn those demanding technical degrees.

If Virginia can’t develop enough home-grown talent to fulfill the demand, Blake suggests, colleges and universities may have to consider recruiting out-of-state students more aggressively. In that case, legislators may have to re-consider the out-of-state enrollment caps it has placed on some institutions.

The good news, says Blake, is that SCHEV reports key metrics — number of degrees granted, college dropout rates, out-of-state students enrolled, and the like. Legislators will be able to see if Virginia stays on track to meet its 20-year targets, and they should have time to make any needed mid-course adjustments.

How Walkable Urbanism and the Talent Pipeline Won the Amazon Deal

Conceptual rendering of Virginia Tech’s proposed $1 billion campus in Alexandria near the proposed Amazon campus.

More information is coming out about the wheeling and dealing behind Virginia’s incentive package that coaxed Amazon, Inc., to locate a $2.5 billion campus in Northern Virginia. It turns out that many of the key pieces in Virginia’s incentive package were initiatives that had been in the works for years. Virginia is putting resources into projects that, most likely, it would have funded eventually anyway.

Amazon wanted an urban location and it selected the Crystal City-Potomac Yard area of Arlington and Alexandria, currently being rebranded by the largest property owner, JBG Smith, as National Landing. A decade ago JBG Smith had commenced the yeoman’s work, with no immediate prospect of reward, of winning the local planning and regulatory approvals to re-develop the aging edge city into a walkable, high-density, mixed-use area — just the kind of urbanism Amazon was looking for.

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech had engaged in preliminary planning to build a major academic campus in Northern Virginia. The idea was mainly conceptual when Amazon announced his national HQ2 competition, but Tech had a scaffold upon which to build when the state began scrambling to put a deal together.

It helped that Commonwealth’s point man for selling Amazon, Stephen Moret, was not a conventional economic developer. The Virginia Economic Development Partnership president takes a broad, integrative approach to the profession that transcends the assembly of real estate deals. Having recently earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in higher education management and serving as a member of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, Moret is well versed in the critical need to build the talent pipeline. He is also conversant about the connections between land use, workforce, innovation districts and economic development.

I haven’t talked to Moret since the Amazon deal was closed. But I recall a conversation a year-and-a-half ago in which he casually blue-skyed an idea for promoting corporate investment in Southwest Virginia by creating a New Urbanism-style development zone around the campus of the University of Virginia-Wise. In that vision, the real estate was almost incidental. Moret’s idea was to create a knowledge-based community with access to UVa-Wise students and graduates that a corporate investor would find attractive.

It’s not a stretch to say that the Amazon project is the same idea writ large — very large. The $550 million in direct employment subsidies constitutes only a modest piece of the deal. What really sold Amazon on Northern Virginia was the prospect of setting its corporate facility (a) in a walkable urban community, (b) in close proximity to a technology-oriented university campus, (c) in order to create a dynamic innovation ecosystem with Amazon at the center, (d) in a metro area with one of the largest tech-savvy labor pools in the country.

Building the talent pipeline. Both the Roanoke Times and the Washington Post have published articles highlighting how the educational piece of the incentives package came together.

As the Roanoke Times writes, Virginia Tech’s proposal to build a $1 billion, one-million-square-foot campus near the Amazon facility was the cornerstone of the talent-recruitment piece of Virginia’s bid.

Virginia Tech had been planning some sort of campus near the nation’s capital since President Tim Sands arrived at the university four years ago. Tech didn’t have a location in mind or much more than a general sense of what the Innovation Campus could be.

“If the first time we had thought about it had been 14 months ago, this probably wouldn’t be what it is,” Sands said during the gauntlet of interviews after Tuesday’s announcement. “We were ready and the timing was perfect.”

Moret was unaware of Sands’ Northern Virginia ambitions when he first reached out to schedule a conference call with college and university leaders around the state last year.

He discussed the HQ2 bid with everyone and laid out early plans to roughly double the number of computer science graduates the state produced each year as part of the HQ2 bid.

He also asked if anyone was interested in the possibility of opening a campus near Amazon in the Washington, D.C., area.

“Virginia Tech reached out right away and said, ‘Hey, we’ve actually been working on this idea for a few years. And we’re prepared to put in a very large investment to make this happen,’” Moret recalled.

George Mason University also stepped up in a big way with plans to expand its Arlington campus. But the GMU campus will not be tightly integrated geographically with Amazon’s like Tech’s will be.

Crystal City rendering by Torti Gallas + Partners

Investing in walkable urbanism. Writing for the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Public Square Journal,  Robert Steuteville provides background on the urban planning piece of the deal.

Crystal City can be thought of as a large suburban retrofit—guided by a plan and form-based code that won a 2009 CNU Charter Award for Torti Gallas + Partners and Kimley-Horn and Associates. That plan and code, adopted by the county in 2010, entitled the new, higher-density development and put in place a framework to create a more walkable urban neighborhood over time.  …

The area was originally built without a master plan, and that changed with the recent master plan. “It’s high-rise suburban. It wants to be higher density, with a more urban mentality— away from cars and with retail on the street that is accessible to people,” says John Torti of Torti Gallas. “It has the potential of becoming a wonderful place.”

Steuteville’s article provides the following graphic comparing a mile-long segment of Rt. 1 as it looks now with the plan transform it into a more walkable, urban boulevard:

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The Closing of the American Mind: Mary Baldwin Edition

I have lost all respect for Mary Baldwin University. The Staunton-based liberal arts institution is training its students to be emotionally fragile, intellectually incurious and totally unprepared for dealing with the world outside of their little higher-ed bubble.

Three years ago, the university scheduled a project in its Hunt gallery entitled, “Relevant/Scrap.” The art exhibit, which opened Nov. 7, included silhouetted depictions of Richmond’s Confederate statues. The artists’ intention, as explained in a Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial today, was to “use art-making processes to create an aesthetic experience of the problematic challenge of re-imagining the spaces where the monuments to the Confederacy currently reside in Richmond.”

An Instagram account titled “Y’all racist at Mary Baldwin” was launched to call attention to the exhibit, and students took their concerns to a weekly meeting of the Student Senate on November 6, reports WHSV. The following day, the exhibit had been removed. Although the artists said they had been misinterpreted, they acceded to the removal.

In a statement explaining the decision, the university said:

“In accordance with our values as an inclusive, student-centered campus community, we take seriously the concerns about an art exhibition by two Richmond-based artists installed earlier this week… As a result of student concerns and discussions with the artists, the installation has been removed as of last night.

Not only did the university remove the exhibit, it committed to holding a series of “listening sessions” giving students “an opportunity to share their feelings in response to the exhibit and their hopes for inclusive community.”

In its editorial today, the Times-Dispatch wrote, “We’d argue that they should instead hold ‘learning sessions’ and use the moment to teach students that free speech isn’t always pretty or comfortable, but it is one of the main pillars of our society and it’s the thing — singular — that makes the United States the most open, accepting nation in the history of the world. … Suppressing speech is the prelude to ignorance, and ignorance, willful or not, is the prelude to the decline of our great society.”

I agree whole-heartedly with that sentiment, but I would say more. First, the cancellation of the exhibit was an act of craven cowardice. University administrators are so terrified of anyone branding them “racist” that they’re willing to abandon all other values. Just pathetic.

What is racist about showing silhouetted images of the Confederate statues in an exhibit about the debate about… Confederate statues? Exposure to a mere image has become an emotionally triggering event, regardless of the context in which that image is shown?

If the images in the aborted exhibit are racist, then the term “racist” has absolutely no meaning and is simply used as a cudgel to bludgeon the weak-minded into submission. At some point the term will be so overused, misused and discredited that it will cease to have any effect.

But more importantly is the effect of the Mary Baldwin capitulation has on the students themselves. The action reinforces their emotional fragility. But emotional fragility is not a trait that will be rewarded in the real world. The action reinforces intolerance of other views. But intolerance of other views is not a recipe for success in the workplace (except in partisan party politics, and perhaps at Google).

I seek out different views. I make it a practice, for example, to tune into “Morning Joe” on MSNBC every morning even thought I find many of the views expressed there to be not only wrong-headed but highly offensive. I do so for a multiple reasons. First, I want to know what liberals and progressives are thinking and saying. Second, want to hear facts and arguments that are neglected by conservative media outlets — I want to avoid having blind spots. Third, every once in blue moon, I hear something that gives me pause and makes me think, wow, they might have a point there.

How ironic it is that an academic institution, presumably dedicated to expanding intellectual horizons and teaching young minds to think critically and analytically, would shut out objectionable symbols and viewpoints while elevating “feelings” over intellect. Sheltering students from the real world — what an educational value proposition!

I can’t imagine why any parents would want that kind of education for their child. But apparently, there’s a market for that kind of education. Mary Baldwin’s freshman enrollment of 400 this year set a record for the institution. I wonder if parents have a clue what’s happening.

Updates: VCCS Transfers and Dominion Taxes

A Good Idea Which Is Spreading

A recent announcement from the Virginia Community College System provides a nice enhancement to an earlier Bacon’s Rebellion story about the smooth transition VCCS students can make to certain Virginia public universities.  A new articulation agreement has been signed with private Randolph-Macon College in Ashland.

The new agreement covers transfers from any of the state’s community colleges and “expands on an existing transfer program between R-MC and (J. Sargeant) Reynolds Community College, which already has facilitated transfers for more than 200 students over the past two years,” to quote the news release.

Not long ago there was a major cost difference between private schools such as Randolph-Macon and public universities.  Public-school price hikes have narrowed any gap and the private schools often have far more scholarship funds or work-study opportunities available.  Spending your first two years at a community college is still a substantial cost savings wherever you choose to finish.

“R-MC academic scholarships range from $14,000 to $21, 000, depending on the student’s GPA. All students are automatically considered for academic scholarships once they are granted admission to R-MC, and no separate scholarship application is required. In addition, (Guaranteed Admission Agreement) students who earned their Associate Degrees at a VCCS school will be eligible for a two-year College Transfer Grant from a program administered by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.”

This is a testament to the recognition throughout the higher education establishment that affordability is everybody’s problem, which of course requires recognition there is a problem at all.  It also indicates community colleges are providing a good educational outcome for students willing to do the work, which is always the essential ingredient.

Taxing Any Layman’s Ability to Understand

The State Corporation Commission is being asked to rule on yet another argument over recent federal corporation income tax reductions and how they should be reflected on utility bills.  Effective January 1, 2018, the tax rate dropped from 35 to 21 percent and the SCC quickly issued a directive to all public service companies that the benefits should pass directly to customers as soon as possible.

In a ruling earlier this year the SCC denied a Dominion Energy Virginia request to continue using the old, higher tax rate in calculating future bills for transmission costs.

The accounting behind that transmission issue was easier to explain than this latest issue, which centers on another of those specific rate riders which show up on your bill to pay for a specific purpose.  In this case the argument involves Rider W, for the Warren County gas combined-cycle generator, but the same question will crop up in all the other riders in effect during the change in the tax rates.  The decision on Rider W will be the precedent for all.

That charge on your bill is intended to collect the total lifetime cost of those individual projects, construction cost, operating cost, profit on capital, depreciation and taxes.  As the plant opened, a projection was made for how much to charge customers annually to cover all that, and it adjusted annually.  The adjustment looks back and includes an element of true-up, adding or subtracting a bit based on the actual experience of the prior year.

The argument at hand involves how to look at taxes which were accrued but deferred during the higher-rate period and paid later at the lower rate.  When I hit a phrase like “amortization of the deferral balance related excess deferred income taxes (“EDIT”) over the Projected Factor Rate Year” in written testimony, I’m going to step back and let the experts have it out.  For Rider W the dispute involves less than $3 million of the tax bill, and the total amount across all the various riders is not reported.  Forward-looking charges will reflect the lower 21 percent tax rate.

Two points, however:

  • Those folks down at the utility will not walk past one nickel on the sidewalk if they can help it.  They may have found a creative way to earn excess profits in a rider, which is supposed to be immune to excess profits. We need the SCC to be just as vigilant over small sums as large.
  • Should the General Assembly drop the ball on state tax policy adjustments to the new federal taxing regime, this process is going to work in the opposite direction at the state level. Dominion’s Virginia corporation income tax will grow, substantially, and every dollar will pass on to customers, not stockholders. Every dollar.

A Massive Waste of Human Capital

Graph source; Cranky’s Blog. (Click for clearer image)

In the 2012-13 school year, roughly 32,000 students entered Virginia’s public universities. Six years later, some 9,000 of them, 28%, had failed to graduate. And if they hadn’t graduated within six years, the chances were remote that they ever would. John Butcher provides the numbers in his latest post at Cranky’s Blog.

Think of the waste in human capital — 9,000 kids, the vast majority of whom took on student-loan debt and were unable to earn a degree that would give them to earning power to pay off that debt. Nine thousand kids mired in modern-day indentured servitude.

As John points out, the problem doesn’t originate at the University of Virginia or the College of William & Mary, which accept only students with high SAT scores. High SAT scores are highly correlated (almost 90%) with college graduation rates. The college drop-out rate is highest at schools that cater to students with low SAT scores. But even then, some schools do a worse job than others of nursing students through to completion. The biggest under-performers, adjusting for average SAT scores, are George Mason University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Old Dominion University.

ODU has the excuse that it serves a transient military population. What’s VCU’s and GMU’s excuse?

Why is this a scandal only for for-profit diploma mills?

More Identity Aggrievement at UVa

UVa Hispanic students feel left out? Really? Photo credit: University of Virginia Multicultural Services website

It didn’t take long for the University of Virginia’s new president, Jim Ryan, to have his first encounter with the university’s identity politics. A few days before his inauguration Oct. 19, Hispanic students circulated an open letter calling for more Hispanic faculty, Spanish-translated documents, and tours in Spanish and Portuguese for applicants and their families.

As of Monday, reports the Cavalier Daily, the letter had been signed by more than 70 student organizations and 450 individuals. Stated the letter:

This year, the University of Virginia admitted its ‘most diverse’ class in history. This is a great stride toward improving diversity at UVA; however, UVA cannot celebrate this when many minoritized students at the University feel underserved, underrepresented, and isolated. In order to help change this, there must be sufficient infrastructure to support minority students after their admittance to the university.

“Historically, providing and advocating for these resources has fallen on student organizations, students, and members of the community. We deserve to experience UVA as students and not as free-labored assets,” the letter read.

Welcome to UVa, Mr. Ryan!

Signatories urged the administration to expand staff in Multicultural Student Services. The letter also noted that while Hispanic students comprise 6% of the student body, there are only 24 Hispanic faculty members — 2.8% — in the College (presumably of the Arts & Sciences) faculty. Outside of the language departments, there are only 10 Hispanic professors. (The letter referred to “Latinx” faculty. I’m not ready yet to swallow that politically correct nomenclature. And for the record, university-wide, there were 80 Hispanic faculty members in 2017.)

So, Hispanic students at UVa have joined the ranks of the perpetually aggrieved. While the letter signatories purport to speak for Hispanics at the university, it’s not clear how many they actually represent. The 450 signatories are only a fraction of the number of 1,069 Hispanic undergraduates (2017 figures) and 312 Hispanic graduate students at UVa. Moreover, I’m willing to wager that many signatories are members of other races/ethnicities.

Furthermore, the letter notes that the first Latino Greek organization, La Unidad Latina, Lambda Upsilon Lambda Fraternity, has been “inactive” for the past two years. Isn’t this evidence that many Hispanic students were perfectly happy joining non-ethnic fraternities, had no trouble getting accepted into them, and saw no need for an ethnic safe haven?

I suspect that the tone of whiny aggrievement and entitlement in the letter reflects the views of only a fraction of UVa’s Hispanic students.

By my count, there are at least ten active student organizations devoted to Hispanics:

  • The Darden Latin American Student Association
  • The Latin American Law Organization at UVA
  • The Latinx Student Alliance
  • The Latino/Hispanic Peer Mentor Program
  • The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers
  • The Hispanic American Network at Darden
  • Destina (a Hispanic Christian group)
  • DREAMERS on Grounds
  • Fuego (an Hispanic dance team)
  • The Latin Student Network at McIntire

That doesn’t include a number of other groups dedicated to “minorities” and “diversity.” If these groups don’t fulfill their social and emotional needs, Hispanic students are free to form groups that do. Given the Student Council’s solicitude toward identity politics, they should have no trouble getting funding.

The freedom to form their own groups is not something the letter writers seem to appreciate. They want the administration’s validation and action. But I have to ask: How many Hispanic students at UVa genuinely feel “underserved, underrepresented, and isolated?” Is the feeling of isolation a real thing, or is it a political affectation of the Left? Do conservative, Republican, and non-political Hispanics — I’m sure there must be a few — feel left out?

How do letter writers think that expanding the staff of Multicultural Student Services will help? If the existence of 10 student groups doesn’t do the trick, what will adding a couple of multicultural staff members accomplish that students couldn’t do just as well by showing some initiative and launching their own groups?

What kind of world do these students imagine awaits them when they graduate? Do they expect their employers to bend over backwards to cater to their politically progressive Hispanic identity? Will they wilt like delicate flowers if they don’t have a multicultural bureaucracy to support them? Will they flounder if their bosses don’t “look like them”? Will they feel any responsibility to adapt to the corporate culture of their employers, or will they insist that their employers and fellow employees adapt to them?

Just as important, what kind of message will Jim Ryan and the UVa administration send their Hispanic students? Will they create a protective bubble to guard the tender sensitivities of the letter writers, or will they encourage them to grow up and learn to deal with the real world as, I’ll wager, most Hispanic students feel perfectly capable of doing?

UVa as “Unfinished Project”


Jim Ryan, the new president of the University of Virginia, made quite the splash in his inaugural address last week: He promised to make attendance at the elite institution tuition-free for students from families earning less than $80,000 a year, and to provide free tuition, room and board for student from families earning less than $30,000 a year.

“Here is what I see when I look ahead over the next decade or so,” Ryan said, as reported by the Daily Progress. “I see a community that opens wide the door to opportunity for first-generation, low- and middle-income students … There is more work to be done in this space, but we might as well get started.”

UVa’s financial assistance program already provides significant aid to lower-income UVa students. According to the Daily Progress, “UVa promises to meet a student’s demonstrated financial need through scholarships, loans and grants, but in-state students may need to take out up to $4,500 in loans per year.” What Ryan’s promise means for UVa finances and its progressive tuition/financial aid model, however, were not clear either from his speech or the Daily Progress article. 

The promise of increased financial aid was but a small part of his address, which explored the theme of the University as an “unfinished project.” In describing what he sees for UVa over the next decade or so, he said:

I see a community, first and foremost, that rests on an exceptionally strong moral foundation. A university that lives its values; that embraces honor and acts honorably; that studies sustainability and practices it; that promotes justice and is just; that endorses free speech and academic freedom and protects them robustly. My friend Drew Faust, from whom you just heard, often said that universities should try to be not just great, but good. I agree and would take it one step further:  I believe that in the future, it will not be possible for a university to be great unless it is also good.

With his emphasis on environmental sustainability (I doubt he’s referring to fiscal sustainability) and justice (presumably of the social justice variety), Ryan reveals himself as a standard-issue liberal-progressive. Conspicuously absent from his speech was any mention of embracing wealth creation or cultivating personal virtue — foundations without which no society can either afford environmental sustainability or enjoy social justice. It is reassuring to hear, at least, that he remains committed to the antiquated virtue of honor and that he will “robustly” protect free speech and academic freedom.

“I see a community that is as vibrant as it is diverse, a community bound by shared values of … honor and integrity, openness and civility, intellectual rigor and human compassion,” said Ryan.

That sounds like a back-handed endorsement of intellectual diversity. So, that’s something.

There’s one other thing we didn’t hear in his speech. We heard about expanding financial aid, but not where the money would come from. We heard nothing about curtailing costs, asking tenured faculty to teach more, making R&D pay its own way, or reducing administrative overhead. When it comes to the business of running the university, Ryan appears to be a status quo president.

As a humble alumnus, my vision for UVa is to create an institution that is more affordable for everyone by keeping a lid on costs rather than an institution that makes attendance affordable for some by raising tuition for others. It’s also crucial, I believe, for even the lowest-income students to bear a portion of the cost of attendance. Everyone needs to have “skin in the game,” or attendance becomes just another entitlement. Finally, if UVa wants to maintain its intellectual vitality, it cannot become an academic mono-culture. It appears that Ryan doesn’t want that to happen, but he will face intense pressure to impose  conformity. Actions speak louder than words. We will watch what he does.

On College Affordability, History Need Not Repeat

by James Toscano

In his October 14 opinion column in The Virginian-Pilot, Gordon Morse decried a speech by Virginia Speaker of the House Kirk Cox that underscores the obvious connection between Virginia’s economic vitality and the roles our public colleges and universities should be playing.

But rather than focus on the future, Morse decided we needed a history lesson, replete with programmatic litanies of “who did what to whom” and “we got here because of political choices” made almost 30 years ago.

Naturally, the irony is inescapable: then, Morse was a speechwriter for one of Virginia’s governors and undoubtedly had every opportunity to weigh in on “political choices” that, today, he characterizes as wrongheaded.

What makes even less sense are criticisms leveled at the Speaker for suggesting that it’s time to consider new ways of writing academic success stories focused on affordability, and rewarding Virginia’s schools who lead the way in public and measurable terms.

To some, it may seem heretical to suggest change. . . to challenge old ways of thinking and doing.  But we’re not going to get out of this higher education mess without change, and the Speaker and others from both sides of the political aisle deserve credit for leading the way.

On the other hand, there will always be those who would rather dwell in the past and use history as a shield against change.  As Morse put it, “If only we could just get straight on the history — yes, it matters – of how we got to this point.”

Well, sure it does.  But only to a point.

Instead, what matters more is how our public colleges and universities will respond to these historic realities:

  1. Too many students are going into debt to get a college degree, and it’s not because they’re drinking too many lattes.
  2. College debt has become the albatross that’s dragging down our economy and draining Virginia’s talent pool.
  3. More and more, a tidal wave of mounting student debt is pushing graduates, parents and grandparents under water, and into bankruptcy.
  4. Left with no affordable – much less realistic – option, Virginia’s next generation of college graduates won’t be.  And then what?

Say what anyone might, but those leading our public colleges and universities – not to mention those governing them – have a primary obligation to educate Virginians first.

It’s what Thomas Jefferson – who wanted to be remembered as the founder of the University of Virginia instead of our third president – always wanted, but what far too many seem to have forgotten.

So if it means meeting a first principles obligation to follow the truth even if it means change, then so be it.

If it means one size will never fit all, and that it will take flexibility and new ways of thinking that don’t quite conform to the past, then so be it.

And if it means accepting that history isn’t a straight line, but something that can actually bend to meet today’s needs, then so be it.

Speaker Cox is a retired high school government teacher who knows these things.

The pity is that others seem to have forgotten them.

James Toscano is president of the Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust.

Virginia Tech Gets This One Right

As the 150th anniversary of Virginia Tech’s founding approaches, university officials are thinking about how to tell the story of the institution’s past. At the University of Virginia and Washington & Lee University, reflections upon the institutions’ histories have been the occasion for self-flagellation over the sins of ancestors who participated in slavery and segregation. While it is proper to acknowledge ugly aspects of the past, nothing useful comes from wallowing in self-abasement.

Judging from recommendations submitted by a 24-person history council described in today’s Roanoke Times, Tech will likely strike the right balance between candor about the past and wallowing in it.

In a nod to contemporary PC sensitivities, the council proposed erecting a work of outdoor art to honor the Native Americans who lived in the area before white settlers arrived. It also proposed an expansion of VT Stories, an existing oral history project, which collects stories from a broad cross-section of the Virginia Tech community.

Last year President Timothy Sands initiated an inquiry into the legacy of Confederates at Virginia Tech. The university has several buildings — McBryde, Vawter and Lane halls — named for men who fought for the South. John McLaren McBryde, sometimes called the “father of VPI,” enlisted in 1861 before the attack on Fort Sumter. Charles Erastus Vawter Sr. fought in the Stonewall Brigade. James Henry Lane was a brigadier general who commanded the 28th North Carolina infantry.

The council decided not to recommend renaming any buildings. Said historian Peter Wallenstein: “Worrying about what someone did as a 20-something member of the Confederate military really was not on the forefront of our minds.”

Council Chairman Bob Leonard, a performing arts professor, hit a pitch-perfect note: “The council strongly believes that previously silent stories must be voiced, such as those of under-represented and historically marginalized groups, and that complicated histories not be hidden, but instead, be related in full context.”

Add to the history. Contextualize the history. Don’t obliterate the history.

Rural Virginia Does Not Need A Marshall Plan

Gov. Gerald L. Baliles

In devastated post-war Europe, millions of people were qualified and eager for jobs or desperate for capital to get their farms planted and harvested.  In demographically-diminishing rural Virginia, farms are mechanized. If you build a huge factory today qualified workers may not come in sufficient numbers.

A scaled-down 21st Century Marshall Plan is a nice rhetorical image, and former Governor Gerald Baliles captured the headlines by using it in a recent speech, but the analogy simply doesn’t fit.  Rural Virginia’s problems cannot be fixed with an infusion of cash.

When Baliles has something serious to say, serious Virginians should read or listen.  After successful turns as legislator, attorney general and governor (pestered but never tripped by the loyal opposition) he returned to private life and never again appeared on the ballot.  That alone sets him apart from today’s career politicians.  He has had a long-standing focus on his native rural Virginia, but his legal career was Main Street Richmond.

“If you were to take the “rural horseshoe” and hold it up against the Golden Crescent, the contrasts are stunning. Two Virginias!  Moreover, according to our community college system officials, if the “rural horseshoe” region were considered a separate state, it would be tied for dead last with Mississippi and West Virginia for educational attainment levels—dead last for citizens with high school diplomas; dead last for citizens with college degrees. Think about that.”

His emphasis on education goes back to his own life experience and that of so many others, my mother’s Southwest Virginia family included.  His critique of Virginia’s failure to hold down higher education costs and provide a high enough share from taxpayer funding is spot on.  As the brisk Bacon’s Rebellion discussions on Richmond’s challenged schools illustrate, however, there are more than two Virginia’s.

The real headline in his talk was the discussion of the Virginia Tobacco Commission’s efforts and the poor results after so many bright ideas, so many grants, and so much money.  I remember the birth of that idea in the Office of the Attorney General under Mark Earley, Randolph Beales, Jerry Kilgore and then Judith W. Jadgmann – three of them with rural roots.  I signed for the first electronic transfer of tobacco settlement funds and the number of zeros made me woozy.

“Arguably, with some exceptions, such as Danville, the rural region of Southside and Southwest Virginia is in worse shape today than 20 years ago when the Tobacco Commission had more than $2 billion to “transform” the region as the legislation required. Look at the educational attainment levels,” Baliles said in his recent speech to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). Again, spot on.

Baliles’ idea to focus remaining tobacco settlement funds on educational attainment is a good one, but he also has his eyes on the burst of higher state tax revenue that will result when Virginia conforms to recent federal tax changes.  Never has so little money been earmarked by so many people for so many pet projects:  the earned income tax credit are K-12 school construction and reconstruction top a growing list. (More on that tomorrow.)

Rural Virginia, designated by that rough U-shaped ring of relative poverty around the corridors of wealth, has educational assets.  Baliles notes that 14 of the 23 community colleges are located there, but they are the smaller ones. Their doors are not battered by more applicants then they can handle, in most cases.  Virginia Tech, Radford and Longwood are state universities in the footprint, and the powerful New River Valley economy is fueled by the first two.

The problem is that young people get what education they do and then leave for the bright lights and the land of Uber.  Or they leave to get that next level of education.  For any number of reasons, once they have the opportunity they simply do not  stay in sufficient numbers to become a magnet for high tech or advanced manufacturing jobs in great numbers.  Many who stay lack that educational attainment and the opportunity it brings.

I cannot think of any policy, any economic development strategy, any spending plan coming out of the General Assembly that will change this pattern.