Why charter status for the University?
An excerpt from Alumni News
By John T. Casteen III
|Virginia’s constitution, last rewritten long after the universities were established, is all but silent on higher education. It contains no charters. In the absence of clear statutory guidance, it was court decisions, executive orders and the bureaucracies’ propensity to regulate everything in view that gradually converted public universities from instrumentalities of the state to agencies and, in the process, made every agency statute apply without regard to fitness or effect on the universities.
U.Va. President John T. Casteen III
The effort to secure formal charters for the University, the College of William & Mary, and Virginia Tech has been much in the news this fall. After operating for almost 15 years under radically reduced state appropriations, the three universities have made what is for Virginia a major move. They have asked for charters that spell out the terms of the deal, that make clear who is responsible for what and that free them from costly, often pointless bureaucratic constraints.
U.Va. was cut no less than $52 million in 2004 as Gov. Mark Warner balanced the state’s budget. The landmark 2004 session had only $7.5 million to add back, coming to us over a two-year period. Since the late 1980s, state tax support has dropped from 28 percent of the University’s general operating budget to an historic low of 8 percent. Today, U.Va., Virginia Tech and William & Mary are together under-funded by no less than $89 million. Our shortage alone amounts to $39 million this year. No other state’s legislature has ever let support for its flagship university slip so low.
Perhaps the most serious consequence is that faculty and staff compensation has fallen woe-fully behind in the marketplace, a shortcoming we feel each year as we patch together funds from non-tax sources. State salaries fall in the range of the 25th-28th percentile of the state’s comparison group, making hiring and retention difficult. The typical faculty family has lost no less than $34,000 in foregone wages tied to state cuts since 1990, and retirement benefits over a lifetime directly reflect this shortfall.
The tax appropriation per in-state student tells a similar story. Our tax appropriation per in-state student this year is $8,840. The University of Maryland’s is $15,384; UNC-Chapel Hill’s is $19,335; the University of Michigan’s is $17,296. All of these direct competitors operate under charters or similar statutes.
This is not how Virginia’s founders intended things to work. Thomas Jefferson set out in the beginning to create “the bulwark of the human mind in this hemisphere,” and he planned to protect it by making it a “body corporate” — in modern terms, a corporation. This statute and the related “Enactments Relating to the University of Virginia” influenced the founding of public universities across the country. Most of their state statutes, especially those adopted under the Land Grant College Act of 1862, borrow freely from Jefferson’s protective language.
University charters in other states share common characteristics: Faculty members, and generally staff as well, are university employees, not state employees. Governing boards set their own hiring, purchasing, construction and enrollment policies; often also set tuition and fees; and are subject in all matters to the legislature. All have some provision for public audit or audit under terms acceptable to the state auditor. This is the essential link to the legislature, and Jefferson was its originator. In addition, the states with the very strongest university systems (Michigan, California, North Carolina, for example) prescribe in law the least intrusive, least regulatory relationships of all.
Virginia’s constitution, last rewritten long after the universities were established, is all but silent on higher education. It contains no charters. In the absence of clear statutory guidance, it was court decisions, executive orders and the bureaucracies’ propensity to regulate everything in view that gradually converted the public universities from instrumentalities of the state to agencies and, in the process, made every agency statute apply without regard to fitness or effect on the universities.
So how would the charter proposal stem this tide? Under the proposed charter, we would agree to (and be able to plan for) lower increases in future tax appropriations than other public universities will receive. In exchange, we would no longer be subject to state regulatory processes involving capital construction, finance, personnel and procurement, all now predominantly dependent on funds other than state taxes. The charter would include our commitment to maintain the current ratio of
in-state and out-of-state students; to continue to provide the range of services we now provide to Virginia, including uncompensated medical care for indigent patients; to conform fully to all state audit requirements; and to be subject to the State Council of Higher Education’s coordinating and other authorities. The governor would continue to appoint the members of the Board of Visitors — the corporate board. In exchange, the state would agree to live by the law as it is enacted. We plan to be what we have been from the start — public, and to continue to serve the public mandate that began here and spread across the land, but to do it by the strict letter and in the spirit of the law as Jefferson wrote it.
Chartered universities in other states accomplish things that we cannot under the current system of regulation. They build their buildings in less time, a matter especially important when universities build laboratories for scientific research. They have access to financing structures that other states see as economic development investments. They do their purchasing through national higher education cooperatives, and at prices well below what the state offers us. They package benefits as benefits are packaged in the real marketplace, thus doing a better job for their
employees than we can do within the existing state systems.
As this proposal has taken shape and begun to be understood for what it is — a way to sustain excellence within the larger framework of our public mission and obligations and to do so despite the financial and political realities of our time — I have been fascinated by the evolution of sentiment about it. Thoughtful employees have raised questions about benefits plans and similar matters. But more generally, legislators and other elected officers who know the state’s situation best, the faculty and staff and students who have seen the price paid for downgrading the universities as public priorities, and the alumni and key volunteers who sustain the University day in and day out have been clear and consistent in their conviction that Virginia deserves better than what it has seen for the last 15 years, and that this charter proposal is one step toward setting the house in order.
In the end, what is at stake as Virginia wrestles with these issues is one of our Republic’s great legacies, the one Mr. Jefferson imagined and struggled to create: “a system of general education, which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest …” If we who live and vote in Virginia assume what we have never accepted — that speaking out is a lost cause, that the public interest is not worth the struggle — we can suffer two real losses. We can lose this campaign to effect fundamental change and build our common futures. And we can lose or abandon the legacy left us by that Virginian who imagined these Grounds and this system of education for free people, and built his vision. The stakes are too high for us to sacrifice that legacy.
(Excerpted from Virginia: The University of Virginia Alumni News magazine, Winter 2004 issue.)