Want to Advance Racial Justice, VCU? Look at Your Bloated Cost Structure and Runaway Tuition

Million-dollar Rao

by James A. Bacon

Three days ago I described how Virginia Commonwealth University is in the process of installing a new “social justice” regime that will mandate “non-discrimination” training to exacerbate snowflake sensibilities, encourage students and employees to report “micro-aggressions,” and adjudicate grievances in a way that will be “affirming for those who have been aggrieved.”

The transformation of VCU into a political reeducation camp is based upon the premise that the university is afflicted with a systemic racism that must be eradicated. This narrative is highly convenient for those in charge.

VCU is, in fact, a source of grave social injustice. But the source of that injustice is not the students who fall afoul of ever-shifting, ever more elusive definitions of what constitutes racism but of those who benefit from the massive wealth transfer from students (and their families) to the administrative and faculty elite of the institution itself.

VCU prides itself as being an institution that is open to minorities and first-generation college students. At the same time, the institution has erected a cost structure that makes necessary the fifth highest cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room, and board) among public Virginia universities — $25,419 in the 2019-20 academic year. Between the 2010-11 academic year and the 2019-20 year, VCU has increased tuition & mandatory E&G (education and general) fees by 76%, mandatory non-E&G fees by 26%, and room & board by 27%. That is far in excess of the 17.5% consumer price inflation over the same period.

Despite the availability of state and federal grants for lower-income students as well as some $2.7 million in VCU tuition waivers (2018-19 school year), 71% of “students of color” who graduate from VCU carry student debt, according to State Council of Higher Education for Virginia data. (This understates the problem because it does not include roughly one-third of students who drop out from VCU.)

The average liability of “students of color” who graduate with debt was $31,523, according to SCHEV data from 2017-18, the most recent year available.

(SCHEV does not break down student debt by sub-groups of “students of color,” which presumably includes Hispanics, Asians, biracial students, American Indians, Pacific Islanders, and blacks of African and Caribbean descent. If African-Americans were broken into a separate category, the percentages who carry student debt likely would be higher, as would the level of student debt upon graduation.)

Where does this money go? Salaries, for one thing. VCU President Michael Rao earned more than $1 million in 2018, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  That included $181,394 in state salary, $425,054 in non-state salary, $250,000 in deferred compensation, and a bonus of $164,387. The figure did not include a $72,000 housing allowance, $7,000 for financial or tax advice, $5,000 for disability insurance, $2,160 for cell phone, or $2,000 to cover the cost of his annual physical not covered by health insurance.

While Rao enjoyed the highest compensation of any state or public university employee in Virginia that year, he was far from the only VCU administrator to earn a fat salary. Provost Gail Hackett earned $415,000 in salary in 2019, according to the Washington Business Journal of highest paid Virginia public employees. Aashir Nasim, vice president of institutional equity, effectiveness, and success, earned a salary of $292,800 in 2019, 

But a few high salaries at the top of the pyramid is a small part of a larger story. VCU faculty, like other major universities, has a hierarchical structure: poorly paid adjunct faculty and graduate students at the bottom, full-time instructors in the middle, and tenure-track faculty at the top. Tenure-track faculty are divided, largely on the basis of seniority, between assistant, associate and full professors. Tenured professors enjoy greater job security, higher pay, more perks, and smaller teaching loads. If they are engaged in scientific research, tenure-track faculty may supplement their salaries with research grants and have graduate students assigned to them as their minions.

Then there’s the bureaucracy. VCU, like other universities, is riddled with administrators from top to bottom. Take the Office of the Provost, for example. Gail Hackett has the following answering to her:

  • An executive assistant/projects coordinator
  • A senior vice provost for academic affairs
  • An executive assistant to the senior vice provost
  • A director for academic programs and policy
  • A managing editor of the University Bulletin
  • A director of undergraduate research and creative inquiry
  • A director of academic integrity and assessment
  • A director of program development and innovation
  • An assistant vice provost for REAL
  • A senior vice provost for faculty affairs
  • A program coordinator for faculty affairs
  • A director of faculty success
  • A vice provost for faculty affairs
  • A program coordinator, Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence
  • A program coordinator for faculty recruitment and retention
  • A university ombudsman
  • A faculty recruitment and human resources administrator
  • An executive director, faculty personnel administration
  • An executive director for academic finance and administration
  • 15 employees in the Center for Community Engagement and Impact
  • 5 employees in the Office of Continuing and Professional Education
  • 7 employees in the Global Education Office
  • 14 employees,  including an associate vice provost, in Institutional Research and Decision Support
  • 7 employees in [email protected]
  • 24 employees, including a senior vice provost for student affairs, in the Division of Student Affairs
  • 21 employees, including a senior associate vice provost, in Student Success
  • 21 employees, including an associate vice provost, in Strategic Enrollment Management

That’s just the Provost’s office. There’s also a President’s Office, and a slew of vice presidents with their own offices for finance, administration, inclusive excellence, research and innovation, development and alumni relations, university relations, and athletics.

Let’s not forget that individual schools — the college of humanities and sciences, arts, business, education, engineering, life sciences, libraries, and the health system — have their own administrations. As do individual departments. Thus, to pick an example more or less at random, the Department of Political Science employs not only some three dozen full- and part-time instructors and professors, it has three administrative staff.

Someone has to pay for this vast administrative structure. The Commonwealth of Virginia foots a share, but students pay the bulk of it through higher tuition.

Earlier this year, diversity chief Nasim documented efforts to hire and retain minority faculty in meticulous detail (concluding that, while far from perfect, VCU had made significant headway). The report responded to a widespread sentiment among black students that they wanted more professors who looked like them. What VCU has never done (or, if it has, I have never come across it) is conduct a study of its vast and sprawling bureaucracy, with attendant costs in salaries, benefits, office space, travel, conferences, and other expenses, and how the burden of maintaining that bureaucracy impacts the affordability and access of a VCU education for minority students.

As long as Rao can define the problem as not enough black students, faculty, or student organizations, or as insufficient anti-racism indoctrination, nobody questions the pay, the perks, and the featherbedding of the staff or the low productivity of senior, highly paid faculty. Nobody questions Rao’s million-dollar salary. Nobody questions the 76%  tuition increase over the past 10 years. 

A common leftist interpretation of slavery in the American colonies holds that the ruling slave owners devised legislation that pitted working class whites against black slaves as a way of controlling both. Divide and conquer. Similarly, one might argue that the “ruling class” controlling academic institutions across the United States has devised its own racial regime — in this case stoking black grievances as a way of pitting the student body against itself and distracting from its own complicity in the exploitation of a generation of American youth.

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10 responses to “Want to Advance Racial Justice, VCU? Look at Your Bloated Cost Structure and Runaway Tuition

  1. Lest Peter attribute my observations as “sour grapes”, if you examine other schools in the public university system, you will find the same kind of administrative bloat as well as a vigorous assault on Western Civilization and in particular its manifestation in the United States. If you look carefully at the careers section of the schools’ websites, you will see stagnation in faculty growth with seemingly unlimited administrative growth. It often appears that the only faculty growth is in “grievance” disciplines and alternative gender promotion disciplines. VCU is not unique. However, Rao is by far the boldest in declaring what he is about.

    My question is this, “Do taxpayers, parents and students know what they are funding, and do they support it?” I am sending Dr. Nasim’s statement to my state Delegate and Senator with a request that they explain why they are funding these types of programs under the banner of “education”.

  2. I’m amused that Jim cites the RTD for information.. the same newspaper he has accused of bias and misinformation, etc..

  3. The bureaucracy is a good place to start in looking at higher ed costs. More than 20 years ago, I walked down a corridor in the VCU administration building, looking at all the doors labeled assistant dean, assistant to the dean, etc., and thinking, “What do all these people actually do?” The picture is much worse now, I am sure.

  4. I’ve got a little bit of a quibble with any narrative that has a premise that because something is costly or “too profitable” whether it be 4 years of College or a Ford pickup – that because that increased cost adversely affects “poor” black folks – that it’s a racist policy.

    Not so much… and never heard that “racist” idea used in conjunction with Pay Day loans which have been said to be a valid “service” for poor folks.

  5. I agree with Larry’s comment; I don’t see VCU’s tuition and fee schedule as being racist. The university could probably point out that any minority student who cannot afford the costs would qualify for financial aid. In fact, a majority percentage of financial aid probably goes to minority students.

    I do agree with Jim’s complaints about the costs, except for one other quibble. Rao is not the highest compensated public or state university employee–football and basketball coaches get that honor. Be that as it may, Rao’s compensation package does seem outlandish, especially in light of what seems to be mediocre leadership.

    If the General Assembly is serious about getting control of higher ed’s expenses, there is an obvious way to do it. It needs to set limits on tuition increases. It could set an overall cap–2 percent for everybody, for example–or it could recognize that not all schools are the same, and set individual caps for each school–one percent increase for W&M and 2.5 percent for Radford, for example. As for fees, the legislature should treat higher ed like other agencies: require them to justify any increase in fees. The Governor, after review by DPB, would have to approve any increase in student fees for each school. Since the boards of visitors will not do their jobs and oversee the burgeoning higher ed bureaucracy, the Governor and the General Assembly should force the schools into trimming their administrative expenses by tightly controlling the amount of money they get. Furthermore, increases in appropriations for higher ed should be targeted for faculty that teach, not those administrators that have faculty status.

  6. Dick,
    I don’t want to speak for James, but believe that he would acknowledge that skyrocketing tuition at VCU is not “overtly racist”. However, with the barrage of assertions that any part of the societal structure which has disparate racial impact is prima facie evidence of “systemic racism”, we should ask if it is part of a systemically racist system. The higher levels of student debt for minority students at VCU compared to that of non minority students is perhaps systemically, not overtly racist.

    Thus, since Michael Rao pushes the systemic racism idea and since he has dictatorial control over all things VCU, it seems that he is both a producer of systemic racism and a warrior against systemic racism. Perhaps the only instances of systemic racism which Rao fails to oppose are those manifestations which feather his nest.

    • the basic premise that hints that because black folks are “poor” that high prices is racist is stereotyping to the max and downright laughable.

      Why in the world would anyone use the word “racist” in ANY discussion of high prices for College when people of color do not even constitute a majority of those who receive TANF or Medicaid?

      That’s sorta like saying that because the price of big screen TVs or Ford pickups is so high that it’s not “overtly” racist but instead systemic.

      give me a break… geeze!

    • Sbostian, you understand my point exactly.

      In the logic of the left, disparate impact = racism. VCU’s cost structure and revenue model to support it have a disparate impact. Therefore, by the logic of the left it is racist. The one and only reason that Virginia’s intelligentsia does not call this arrangement into question is that the intelligentsia is the primary beneficiary of the arrangement. All structures are racist… except the ones they create and benefit from.

  7. SBostian and Jim,
    My take is that this issue is nearly a half a century old. I went to college in a different world. There, they embraced diversity and wanted to hire more minorities and make sure there was no discrimination. That was in the 1970s. You may not like this, but that’s the way it is. It is incorrect to present this as some kind of “new” revolution and I wince at the pejorative “social justice warrior” term because it is just another reactionary right wing dog whistle. I fail to see how this is “Maoist,” — whatever that means — since Maoism went out long ago. I do have more than a passing familiarity with Russia-style Communism.
    Regarding Rao, I don’t know much of what he’s doing these days, but he did get off to a rough start. Here’s a piece I did about him about 10 years ago:

    https://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/all-in-the-family/Content?oid=1441897

  8. SBostian and Jim,
    My take is that this issue is nearly a half a century old. I went to college in a different world. There, they embraced diversity and wanted to hire more minorities and make sure there was no discrimination. That was in the 1970s. You may not like this, but that’s the way it is. It is incorrect to present this as some kind of “new” revolution and I wince at the pejorative “social justice warrior” term because it is just another reactionary right wing dog whistle. I fail to see how this is “Maoist,” — whatever that means — since Maoism went out long ago. I do have more than a passing familiarity with Russia-style Communism.
    Regarding Rao, I don’t know much of what he’s doing these days, but he did get off to a rough start. Here’s a piece I did about him about 10 years ago:

    https://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/all-in-the-family/Content?oid=1441897

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