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203
By Robert A. Jones
Richmond, Virginia
T
hroughmuch of the last decade, Virginia’s public
universities have served as a kind of canary-in-the-coal-
mine for higher education systems undergoing financial
stress. Few have suffered as much as Virginia’s, and many
watched to see if the canary would wither under the strain.
Beginning in the ’90s, the state legislature repeatedly cut
financial support to the campuses, once whacking 22 percent
from the higher education budget in a two-year period.
Governors alternately froze and then rolled back tuition,
occasionally using the universities as a political whipping
boy. Virginia’s reputation as a nurturer of excellence in higher
education teetered on collapse.
The despair expressed by education officials was notable.
One college president described the state as delivering
“grievous wounds” to the campuses. The director of the state’s
Council on Higher Education departed his post, saying any
more time on the job would amount to “cruel and unusual
punishment.” A dean at the University of Virginia said the
starving of public institutions represented “insane, ideological,
odd thinking” in Richmond.
Now, however, there are signs that the poisoned
atmosphere of the last decade may be lifting. This spring
Governor MarkWarner,
a Democrat, signed
legislation reconfiguring the
entire relationship between
the campuses and the state,
offering new financial
formulas and giving
unprecedented autonomy
to some institutions. It has
been heralded by some
as a potential model for
other states facing similar
dilemmas and has inspired
the first optimism in several
years at the state’s colleges
and universities.
“The script is a happy
one so far,” said Timothy X.
Sullivan, president of the College of William andMary. “We
have the chance of creating an environment that is predictable
and controllable. That alone represents a real break from the
past.”
All acknowledge that the change was born out of
desperation. By spring 2004, the accumulated campus deficits
had grown so dire that three of the state’s leading institutions
proposed to dismantle their relationship with the state,
replacing it with a charter status. The schools—the University
Summer 2005
Virginia Tries Restructuring
Financial stress leads to new arrangements between state and campuses
of Virginia, Virginia Tech, andWilliam andMary—offered to
accept a cut in financial support from the state in exchange for
their freedom to raise tuition and conduct their own affairs.
That plan did not fly in the legislature, but, with the
support of Warner, it soon morphed into the restructuring
of the traditional relationship that was signed into law in
April. Under the new structure, some campuses will operate
as de facto contractors with the state. They will negotiate
management agreements, or contracts, that will grant them
widespread autonomy, including the right to set tuition and
fees and to carry out campus operations without interference
from state agencies. In return, the campuses will be held
accountable for meeting a series of state-imposed goals.
But here in Virginia no one is celebrating yet. The
arrangement is so complex—the legislation alone consumes
50 single-space pages—that few pretend to know exactly how
it will play out. The true impact of the change, college officials
say, will be known only after the management agreements
have been put into practice and survive the political currents
in Richmond.
In a nutshell, the management agreements will spell out
the rights and responsibilities for college administrations
in virtually every aspect of campus operations, from new
construction and personnel to tuition increases and course
offerings. The agreements will be drafted by individual
campuses and then sent toWarner’s office for a round of
negotiations with the state.
“Now the hard work begins,” Warner said on a recent
State Senator John H. Chichester, a Republican, worked with Democratic Governor
Mark Warner to restructure Virginia higher education.
Virginia Governor
Mark Warner
recently signed
legislation
reconfiguring the
entire relationship
between Virginia’s
public universities
and the state.
Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk