VCU Undergoes Intensive Self-Examination

Image from the One VCU Academic Repositioning Task Force website.

by James A. Bacon

As students gravitate to degree programs in business, engineering, and health professions with better defined career paths, Virginia Commonwealth University is asking some fundamental questions. The intensive self-analysis could result in the merger of struggling departments or the creation of entirely new ones. 

“The question is, are we positioned to serve the needs of our students, the needs of our faculty and the needs of our community?” Provost Fotis Sotiropolous told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The cost of attending college is up, the traditional college-age population is shrinking, and businesses are increasingly questioning the value of college degrees as employment credentials.

“The One VCU Academic Repositioning Task Force will recommend an academic structure that ensures an academically exciting and leaner university,” states the repositioning task force website. “Its guiding principles are trust and transparency.”

VCU faces major financial challenges — including a $25 million budget shortfall this year — but it has some things going for it. It has stabilized the enrollment decline of the previous four years, while research funding has increased across the board, reinforcing VCU’s status as a Top 50 research university.

The priorities cited by Sotiropolous include:

  • Create a pipeline that can facilitate new, engaging, and exciting degree programs in emerging fields;
  • Maximize operational efficiencies and collaboration between programs;
  • Facilitate more cross-unit engagement and transdisciplinary research opportunities for faculty; and
  • Create new career pathways for preparing students to succeed in a rapidly changing world.

It is a good sign that VCU is addressing fundamental issues. But there appear to be limits to the self-scrutiny. For example, although enrollment in humanities courses like English have stagnated or even declined, Sotiropoulos says that “humanities will play a big role. It’s not about closing programs, and it’s not about letting people go.”

Despite vague talk about finding “operational efficiencies,” I can find no indication that the university is taking a serious look at its administrative overhead or faculty productivity, the biggest drivers behind tuition increases.

Furthermore, I can see no evidence that VCU is reconsidering its commitment to social justice and political activism. Part of the population is fine with that emphasis. Not everyone is. Not all parents want to fork out $120,000+ to have their kid imbued with antithetical values. The leftist political orientation is so deeply rooted in VCU culture that it likely will never be questioned, must less expunged.