Updates from the Higher-Ed Apocalypse: VSU, RU, and JMU

VSU President Makola Abdullah

by James A. Bacon

Accelerated by the COVID-19 epidemic, the wrenching restructuring of the higher-ed industry is moving from small, private liberal arts colleges to the weaker public universities. Here’s the latest news from Virginia State University and Radford University.

VSU, a 138-year-old historically black institution, faces a 10% drop in enrollment, big losses in dormitory and cafeteria revenue, and a $26 million operating deficit, reports the Richmond Free Press. President Makola M. Abdullah has told the board of visitors that the university likely will have to dip into its $21 million reserve fund to cover some of the deficit, including debt payments for residence halls and buildings.

Like other historically black higher-ed institutions, VSU has struggled in a marketplace where larger, more prestigious institutions offering more financial aid are competing for African-American students. The university has teetered on the brink of financial collapse before but has always managed to fight its way back. The Northam administration’s response to the COVID epidemic has undermined the business model of every Virginia institution by limiting the number of students who can reside in dormitories, and VSU is no exception.

Meanwhile, Radford University President Brian Hemphill is grappling with an anticipated revenue shortfall. According to the Roanoke Times, one option under consideration is across-the-board cuts that would include salary reductions for all employees, permanent budget reductions for all administrative and academic departments, mandatory furloughs, and a hiring freeze for the entire university.

Alternatively, a strategic restructuring option would include consolidating or eliminating academic departments based on productivity and other criteria. The strategic option is especially interesting. Public higher-ed institutions typically have done zero analysis of departmental productivity (or if they have done it, they haven’t released it to the public). If the COVID-19 epidemic forces university administrations to face up to the realities of mission creep, bloated administrations, and low departmental productivity, it might actually turn out to be a good thing.

Meanwhile, James Madison University has faced the COVID-19 epidemic…. and decided it is more important to address the “epidemic” of racism. President Jonathan Alger told the university community earlier this month that JMU would fill the position, created this spring, of Associate Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion this fall “as an exception to the current hiring freeze.”

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8 responses to “Updates from the Higher-Ed Apocalypse: VSU, RU, and JMU

  1. I would guess/hope that if a given higher ed actually has a reserve fund that it probably indicates that they have some responsible level of finance policy. For instance, the dorms are separate from the academic which is separate from sports which is separate from the dining hall.

    The ones that are will be able to wind down with some discipline while the loosey goosey ones will suffer.

    COVID19 won’t last forever (at least at the level it is now), so I suspect that some higher ed is just going to hunker down and wait for things to get better… shedding whatever employees they have to shed right now.

    I’m not even sure how many would actually want to go back to school if there are no sports and other social activities … boring….boring…

  2. I would not be surprised if Radford opts for across the board cuts. It is easier and does not step on any toes harder than others–everybody gets hurt the same. It is also the wrong approach. Colleges and universities have become too much like technical training schools. They need to get back to their basic function of educating (not training) student, including teaching them to be critical thinkers. (I realize that is a minority view in this day and age of calling for higher ed to be attuned to graduates being “employable”. I contend that a well-educated graduate should be employable in any field.)

    • well… “educated” does not necessarily mean “employable”. 😉

      and I totally agree about critical thinking but I think it needs to start in K-12.

      Some parents have their kids on auto-pilot for college from birth! .. the only question is where… others .. are not as “guided” and not as sure about what college is supposed to be about other than it’s supposed to lead to a good job – not necessarily so.

      But in the end – Higher Ed is as much a product as anything else – and they strive to deliver to the customer what the customer wants.

      And right now – they cannot provide what most customers want which is an on-campus college experience… and no customers means no revenue and there are gonna be layoffs and retirements.. etc…

      but I still think – this is a pothole not a wall.

    • I totally agree with you — colleges and universities should “educate” and businesses should “train.” Businesses have sloughed off the training responsibility and colleges have eagerly snarfed it up. The losers are the students/future employees who now have to pay tuition to learn in college what they once learned on the job.

  3. So.. WHERE does one get “educated” or “trained” to be a Bill Gates or a Zuckerberg? K-12, private school, or homeschool or what?

  4. Good for JMU as it may well help with their recruiting. Go Dukes!

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