- Created on Wednesday, 27 June 2012 15:24
At the University of Virginia, a board of visitors believed that rapid and radical change was necessary. Universities face declining public support yet cannot continue to raise tuition. Thus, they need to find new streams of revenue. Stanford, for example, is experimenting with raising money through massive online courses while hidebound Virginia sits on its hands. Meanwhile, Virginia squanders resources on small, expensive programs, especially in the humanities, which do not prepare students for jobs in the brave new world.
That, anyway, was the thinking of a board of visitors led by a real estate developer and composed in large part by business school graduates. Or at least that seemed to be what the board was thinking for, despite a couple of attempts, the board failed to communicate its thinking clearly to the outside world.
Less than two years earlier, the board had hired a new university president. Now the board decided that that U. Va.’s new president, Theresa A. Sullivan, was the wrong person for the job. Sullivan was a self-professed incrementalist. But Virginia could not wait. So the board fired Sullivan – only to be forced through a firestorm of protest by U. Va. deans, faculty, alumni, students, and donors to unanimously decide to reverse itself and retain Sullivan.
What does this episode mean, not just for Virginia, but for higher education more broadly?
The fundamental question is: Who should fund state universities? Should students fund universities through their tuition dollars? If students are the beneficiaries of the educations they receive, should they not be the ones paying for that education? Should state universities look for ways to fund themselves through profit-making courses and programs? Or perhaps by having professors collaborate with for-profit businesses in research and development?
The best answer to all of those questions is no.
The entire Commonwealth of Virginia benefits from a first-rate university. Does Virginia benefit, for example, from having smart, well-educated, and dedicated public school teachers? Does Virginia not want some its best and brightest to become teachers? That will not happen if Virginia says: Become a teacher if you want, but pay the full freight for your own education, by saddling yourself with heavy debt if necessary.
Teachers are, of course, just one example. All of Virginia’s citizens benefit from having insightful, creative, and well-educated architects, engineers, physicians, nurses, psychologists, social workers, librarians, journalists, judges, lawyers, police officers, chemists, pilots, accountants, entrepreneurs, business managers – and even poets, novelists, playwrights, and artists who create “content” that profitable businesses sell.
A healthy society and thriving economy require well-educated citizens, including a cohort of superbly-educated citizens who are free to pursue their passion without having to pay off enormous debt.
State universities should be principally supported – not through tuition dollars – but through income taxes. It is rational, fair, and in the best interests of society as a whole for graduates who make more money over the course of their careers to pay more, and for graduates, such as teachers and social workers, who make less to pay less. The income tax does this most efficiently. It’s also fair and sensible for all taxpayers to support a great state university, whether or not they attended it, because even those who did not study there benefit from the contribution that university makes to society at large.
It’s appropriate for Virginia to reserve most of its places in its flagship university for its own residents and charge out-of-state students market-rate tuition. It’s appropriate for state universities to have reciprocal agreements with other state universities, so that they can trade students at in-state tuition rates and each university does not have to programs in every field. It’s appropriate for alumni and others to support universities with donations. It’s important that state universities be careful stewards of taxpayers' money. Dormitories, for example, should be comfortable but not palatial.
Virginia’s board of visitors was reportedly upset that Virginia was losing ground to “peer” institutions in the U.S. News rankings. Among other things, they wanted to increase faculty salaries to better compete in the marketplace. They wanted U. Va. to be both better and cheaper, to be a great public university and generate its own revenue. But there are no magic wands, no free lunches.
Like many other states, Virginia wants to have a great state university without paying for it. State universities across the country are receiving diminishing public support – blurring the distinction between public and private universities. A state that does not want to support its flagship university should stop pretending and cut that university free – allowing it to have its own governing board; take whatever students it wants from whatever states they may come; charge whatever tuition it wishes; and otherwise set its own course. A state that does not want to pay the piper should stop calling the tune.
We are heading increasingly in this direction – and that’s a tragedy. Private universities are wonderful institutions. But we will all be impoverished without great state universities.
No one should think that the underlying issue was solved when the board of visitors reversed its decision. The fundamental problem will remain until the Commonwealth of Virginia forthrightly confronts two fundamental questions: Does it want a great state university? If so, is it willing to pay for it? Moreover, the Virginia episode will be played out in different forms across the nation until other states honestly confront those questions as well.