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Governor Indicates Support of Charter; Initiative Gains Momentum From Legislative Study Review

January 12, 2005

By Carol Wood

On the eve of the opening of the 2005 General Assembly, the three universities leading the Charter Initiative to increase institutional autonomy received some good news from the governor’s office.

Speaking at the third meeting of the joint subcommittee studying the relationship between public colleges and universities and the commonwealth, John M. Bennett, secretary of finance, said that Gov. Mark R. Warner views current proposals for change as “a significant opportunity to develop a new model – or a new relationship – with higher education. We might suggest going even further than what was discussed here today.”

The governor would like to advance proposals currently on the table, Bennett said. “But we ought to trade process accountability for outcome accountability.” He elaborated, saying the governor was interested in strengthening accountability measures in several key areas, including access and affordability, student progress, outreach to local under-performing school systems and economic development.

The central point of discussions, Bennett said, should be “if we trade operational autonomy, we need to define more precisely what they (universities) are accountable for. … (W)e grant you freedom, but in exchange for your meeting state-wide obligations.”

While Bennett was one of the last speakers during the three-hour meeting, support for what has come to be known as the “charter initiative” permeated the afternoon’s discussions and made it clear that some landmark changes were in store for the relationship between the state and its public colleges and universities. And it also was clear that many of these needed changes would make their way into legislation in the coming weeks.

In fact, Sen. John H. Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, chairman of the study committee and of the Senate Finance Committee, opened the meeting by saying there had long been a disconnect between higher education and the state. “The state has been on cruise control for some time, and has continued to add layers of bureaucracy. It’s a mind set that doesn’t make sense,” he said. “These are multi-million-dollar, and in some cases multi-billion-dollar, institutions, and they need to be able to make business decisions efficiently, … keeping in mind that they are more than business enterprises, that they are, more importantly, academic enterprises.”

Chichester said he believed the day’s presentations were a critical first step to moving forward in a partnership with higher education that would embrace long-range planning, decrease bureaucracy and increase focus on measurable outcomes.

Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-Newport News, said his hope for the committee’s outcomes would be in drafting meaningful legislation that might result in an innovative approach to higher education.

Picking up on Chichester’s earlier analogy to the state’s being on cruise control, Norment added, “The debate over the next 46 days will be on how far we can push the accelerator.”

Sen. Russell H. Potts Jr., R-Winchester, agreed that the timing is critical. "We won’t have an opportunity like this for a very long time,” he said. “I just hope we do it right and go far enough. Virginia has one of the finest systems of higher education in America. We need to give them the tools and the flexibility to move forward and to overcome the cumbersome barriers that impede them from performing at 100 percent. “

These remarks preceded a detailed presentation of the committee’s responses to the universities’ requests for legislative changes in areas such as procurement, personnel, capital outlay, accountability and improved planning processes, including financial resources.

For Gordon F. Rainey Jr., committee member and rector of U.Va.’s Board of Visitors, the heart of the day’s recommendations lay in the “financial planning category” and the statement that boards should be allowed to develop six-year financial plans for their institutions and that their authority to set tuition rates should be recognized.

While Rainey said he liked what he saw, history had not shown that kind of full support for planning and tuition-setting by boards.

“Will boards in fact be truly accountable?” Rainey asked. “How will this work?”
He was assured that real board authority was the intention of the recommendation and that the six-year funding model would help create the predictability that institutions have needed in order to operate more efficiently and to forecast tuition more accurately.

The committee’s recommendations (online at were drafted to benefit the institutions – as well as the commonwealth – and to keep alive the discussion on needed changes in higher education, Chichester said. There were numerous areas in which the recommendations and the universities’ wishes overlapped. Some remain under review, while still others – including whether the institutions remain state agencies – appear ready to be dropped from discussion.

Committee members made clear that the additional benefits and greater flexibility included in the recommendations applied to all of the state’s public colleges and universities and were reflective of an earlier proposal made by the Council of Presidents to expand the charter initiative to include all of higher education (see related story, “Two Top Virginia Education Leaders Lend Support to Charter”).

“The governor would like to see this (concept) advance,” Bennett said, adding, “continued dialogue should reflect all of our best interests.”

The meeting closed with a rush to consensus and with House and Senate members from both sides of the aisle intent on helping draft legislation. Norment, who said he planned to carry some form of the legislation forward, added his hope for the group to continue to work in concert in creating legislation they might all agree on.
While Chichester noted time was short to accomplish that goal, he set a deadline of one week from today to do just that.

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