Sullivan Letter Announces Restructuring Initiative
Sullivan's A clear-eyed look at the higher education funding gap.
During the past few years, you have heard me and several of my fellow university presidents warn of the consequences of underfunding Virginia's public institutions of higher education. In recent years, the warnings have become more urgent. Now, before damage to our universities becomes irreversible, the presidents of the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech and I are advancing a proposal that we believe will protect the quality of our core educational programs while recognizing the severity of the Commonwealth's financial challenge. If adopted, our proposal will give assurance to Virginia's young people that they have a fine future in the Commonwealth, that they should stay here, raise their families and contribute to the common welfare.
Many studies, including several conducted by the General Assembly, make it clear that Virginia's higher education system suffers from chronic underfunding. To gauge more accurately the magnitude of this problem, we have calculated what the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and William and Mary need annually to operate their educational programs. In determining this "cost of education" we used goals and guidelines developed by the General Assembly itself. We found that our three institutions have an annual deficit of $145 million, exclusive of unmet student financial aid, to meet operating costs. Of this amount, William and Mary's deficit amounts to $21.4 million per annum.
This funding gap threatens to erode the quality of critical programs that has taken decades to build. We cannot pay our faculty and staff competitive salaries; financial aid falls far short of what our students need. These are the most serious problems we confront. They are by no means the only ones.
We have thought hard about how we might work with the Commonwealth to resolve what can only be described as a crisis. We recognize that Virginia is in a difficult fiscal position, but we also know that future state investment in higher education is indispensable to a better economic future.
Tuition can be expected to rise under any scenario that we or the General Assembly might envision. One clear advantage of our proposal is that new revenues resulting from these increases can be invested in programs that directly serve our students. We are pledged to devote a substantial portion of these new revenues to student financial assistance, a strategy that will enable us for the first time to meet fully the aid needs of accepted Virginia undergraduates.
The best hope for more modest tuition increases depends upon a strengthened resolve to provide additional public funding for higher education. If those in state government and we in public universities work together toward this goal, we can reduce or eliminate the funding gap, while keeping the financial burden on Virginia students and their parents at more reasonable levels.
The University Restructuring Initiative evolved from prior successful experiments in decentralization of critical administrative responsibilities. The Commonwealth and our three universities have benefited from these experiments. We now want to take the next logical step, but our proposal was not drafted to benefit only our three institutions. We have included provisions that would permit other universities to participate when they meet fixed statutory criteria and when the university itself formally elects to apply for Commonwealth charter status. Should the General Assembly approve our proposal, a process will begin that - after appropriate legislative and administrative review - should result in the negotiation of memoranda of understanding detailing the new relationships between our institutions and the Commonwealth.
This is not a proposal to privatize our institutions. What we seek -- what we need -- is the institutional flexibility to protect the quality that lies at the heart of our academic programs. We would become Commonwealth Chartered Universities, but we would remain public institutions with boards appointed by the Governor, confirmed by the General Assembly and accountable to the people - just as we are now.
The presidents of UVA and Virginia Tech and I are deeply committed to the success of our plan. Whatever its fate, however, you may be certain that we remain dedicated to educating Virginia's young people, attracting students from other states and nations to join us, strengthening the state's economy and providing vital public services for all of the Commonwealth's citizens. These things form a proud and central part of our heritage. We will never surrender them.
Timothy J. Sullivan