by James A. Bacon
Last October University of Virginia Provost Ian Baucom briefed the Faculty Senate executive committee about a package of four multimillion-dollar academic initiatives that were in the works. The camera angle in the video recording shows him as a tiny, barely discernible figure at the far end of a long conference table. But his fast-clipped, staccato voice comes through loud and clear.
One initiative would address society’s “Grand Challenges” while another would build the university’s R&D infrastructure. Two others, largely geared to the pursuit of diversity, would set up a $20 million fund to aid the recruitment of graduate students and a $20 million fund to boost recruitment of “under-represented” faculty.
Members of the Faculty Senate were on board with the diversity programs, and Baucom felt at ease talking about them. “Behind [the faculty-recruitment initiative],” he said, “is the reaffirmation of the Audacious Futures Report to double the number of under-represented faculty. The president and I have been very clear that he stands by that goal.”
Four months later when the initiatives had moved further through the administrative pipeline, though, the Provost was less forthcoming with the Board of Visitors than he had been with the faculty. He described the Grand Challenges and R&D initiatives in considerable detail, but barely acknowledged the other two strategic priorities. He never explained that the faculty and graduate-student initiatives were designed in part to advance diversity.
The dichotomy in Baucom’s presentations raises important questions of governance at UVa. At a time when racial preferences in admissions and hiring are coming under increasing scrutiny, how much information about those practices is the Ryan administration withholding from the Board of Visitors? Who decides what to tell the Board? What power does the Board have to demand a fuller accounting?
An unstated concern of the Faculty Senate in October was the changing legal and political environment. The U.S. Supreme Court was expected to rule in the foreseeable future on the constitutionality of racial preferences in admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. And Governor Glenn Youngkin, who had expressed major reservations about Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, had nominated four members to the 17-person Board of Visitors. One of them was Bert Ellis, an alumnus whom the student newspaper had criticized for his views about DEI. The Faculty Senate was about to formally censure him that very month over a controversy that had occurred a year previously.
Under the circumstances, one faculty member asked the Provost if the funding for the recruitment programs was “secure.”
Referring to the Faculty Inclusive Excellence Fund, Baucom said, “We know we’re in an environment in which our actions are more likely to be contested…. I don’t want to launch the program and get sued.” He would meet with the Counsel’s office to get its “blessing,” he added.
Adding to Baucom’s uncertainty at the time was the fact that UVa had a relatively new University Counsel who formally reported to Virginia’s conservative Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares, not to President Jim Ryan. Earlier that year Miyares had replaced Ryan’s hand-picked counsel, Timothy Heaphy, with Cliff Iler. While Miyares also was a DEI skeptic, Iler’s chief credential was his experience in higher-ed and health-systems law. He has left no trace in the public record of his views on racial preferences.
I asked Iler and UVa spokesman Brian Coy if Baucom ever did meet with the University Counsel’s office, and what the outcome was. Iler did not respond. Coy confirmed that a meeting did take place to discuss discretionary funding to recruit under-represented minorities. I asked to see any written guidance that the University Counsel’s office might have provided. Coy did not respond to that follow-up request before publication of this article.
Four months after the Faculty Senate meeting, Baucom described the four academic initiatives to the Board of Visitors during a tightly-scripted Academic and Student Life Committee presentation. The agenda also called for squeezing in a review of enrollment projections, the introduction of two new deans, and a description of a new data-sciences degree within an hour and fifteen minutes.
It is standard practice for the Board of Visitors to post an agenda and presentation materials online in advance of the meeting, but there was no hint in the Academic and Student Life Committee agenda that Baucom would introduce academic initiatives totaling $150 million or more. The agenda left a slot open for unspecified “EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT AND PROVOST REMARKS (Mr. Baucom).” With no advance notice of the topic, board members had no time to prepare questions.
As it turned out, Baucom’s presentation to the board treated the subject of racial preferences in faculty and graduate-student recruitment so cursorily that it passed without notice. He devoted most of his time to describing a $100 million Grand Challenges initiative identifying key areas like smart cities and precision medicine where UVa could make a big impact, as well as an ambitious program to build hard and soft infrastructure for attracting funded research. He mentioned two other initiatives, costing $10 million and $20-$21 million, almost as a footnote.
I was in the audience, I was taking notes, and I was on high alert for any topic relating to racial preferences. Baucom’s presentation tripped no alarm bells. I took sketchy notes — they referred to “advising initiatives” — and the Board of Visitors does not post recordings of its meetings so I cannot review the tape. But I have checked with other Board members, and they do not any mention any tie-in with diversity goals.
I asked UVa spokesperson Brian Coy to clarify what Baucom was talking about. Here is his response:
I believe the reference to the $20-$21 million initiative relates to funding set aside to help the University recruit and support graduate students via several mechanisms, including funding for schools to bolster graduate fellowship support and support for our PhD Plus program which helps prepare graduate students for work both inside and beyond the academy. As you know, competition for graduate students is fierce and the University is committed to attracting the best and brightest.
The $10 million is intended to support a transformation of the University’s approach to student advising, so that we are doing all we can to help our students make the most out of their time studying at UVA. Improving advising is one of the key initiatives identified in the University’s strategic plan and this funding will support that important effort.
Judging from my notes and Coy’s response to my questions, it’s not clear if Baucom mentioned the $20 million Faculty Inclusive Excellence initiative at all.
Here is what can be gleaned about the racial-preference initiatives based upon Baucom’s presentation to the Faculty Senate committee supplemented by additional material in the committee minutes.
The Graduate Education Initiative ($20 million)
The Graduate Education Initiative had several components:
MA and undergrad
Baucom said the university had established a $20 million fund to be expended over three years to enhance the general graduate-student experience. The fund would provide fellowships (financial support) for recruiting “under-represented” scholars and creating fellowships to recruit PhD students in targeted research domains, among other priorities. Additionally, the $20 million initiative would fund “bridge” programs to recruit under-represented groups into Masters programs.
“In some cases [the university] would give preference to, or guarantee, admission to PhD programs,” Baucom said. “We’ll also be working with some national organizations that identify undergraduate students who are interested in pursuing graduate work. All part of the pipeline effort. As a public institution, we feel like this is one of our fundamental charges: not only to be a more diverse university ourselves but to contribute to the diversity of the professoriat and professions at large.”
Additionally, the graduate student package would develop a writing center to assist graduate students with such skills as grant writing and dissertation writing.
The Faculty Inclusive Excellence Initiative ($20 million)
The key components of the Faculty Inclusive Excellence Initiative were:
TOPS (Targets of Opportunity) hires
Postdoc to faculty positions
Mentoring support (2-3K)
In the higher-ed industry, “target of opportunity” hires refers to the recruitment of scholars and researchers who were not on the job market. It’s a polite way to express the concept of raiding another university for its talent. As recently as a decade ago, UVa used the term in reference to the recruitment of scholars who were top in their fields. Today, amidst the manic competition for a limited pool of minority scholars, it typically refers to the aggressive recruitment of minority professors and researchers.
“Behind this [initiative],” said Baucom, is the reaffirmation of the Audacious Futures Report to double the number of under-represented faculty. The president and I have been very clear that he stands by that goal. This won’t get us there, but we think that it could really help.”
(“Audacious Future” was the report published by the Racial Equity Task Force. which laid out the Ryan administration’s roadmap for implementing Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at UVa. In a communication with The Jefferson Council, Coy noted that the faculty recruitment initiative is not “exclusively” tied to Audacious Futures. It is aligned also with the Inclusive Excellence framework and UVa’s strategic plan, “which sets a goal of a faculty that is ‘diverse by every measure.'”)
As described by Baucom, the Target of Opportunity program would aim to recruit minorities at all levels: from post-doctorate positions to faculty. UVa might recruit someone to the faculty by hiring him or her in a post-doctorate position first. The initiative also would provide mentoring, he added. “We want to make sure they’re flourishing, so we provide them support.… Identify mentors in their fields inside and outside the university.”
(As an aside, Target of Opportunity hires are colloquially referred to at UVa as “opportunity hires.” The Jefferson Council submitted a FOIA request through the University Counsel’s office for documents referring to “opportunity hire” policy but was told none existed.)
Patricia Jennings, chair of the Faculty Senate, asked Baucom if UVa had a focus on retaining diverse faculty, not just recruiting them.
“I have found a pool of money. It’s not vast,” Baucom said. He had asked a senior administrator in his office to “build a proposal” to retain mid-career faculty.
Another faculty member asked, “Given that much of this has to do with under-representation and DEI, have the monies been identified to support that? Are they relatively secure?”
Responded Baucom: “I do have to get Counsel Office’s blessing on how we can do this. We know we can do this work because we’ve done this work. We know we’re in an environment in which our actions are more likely to be contested than they have been in the past…. We’re going to do this. But I’ve got to be smart about it. I don’t want to launch the program and get sued… Actually, I don’t mind getting sued. Getting sued is not the issue. It’s losing a lawsuit. From a legal perspective, I’ve got a meeting with the Counsel’s office. We’ll do something. We might be able to do a little less than two years ago. When I was dean of the [College of Arts & Sciences], we just ran these programs. We ran them at the graduate level, undergraduate level, faculty level.… No one contested them. I’ll come back and let you know if Counsel says, nice idea but….”
He broke off his answer to ask, “Are we being recorded?”
“Yes,” came the answer.
Baucom was at a momentary loss for words.
“OK, yeah, right…. Um… Thanks… Umm… So, umm….”
His interlocutor let him off the hook. “It’s OK if you want to defer that question.”
Jefferson Council colleague Walter Smith contributed document research to this article.