12/05/13: University system has lost its way

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

THE TIME has come for Virginia to consider implementing a statewide university system for its public four-year institutions of higher learning. The system already in place for the two-year community colleges provides a model of how it could be done.

A university system would put in place a statewide governing board. A June 2013 report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission states that these boards “commonly have the authority to appoint, compensate and evaluate system and institutional leadership; manage institutional planning and budgeting; and establish faculty and other personnel policies at each university.”

Most states employ such a system, including our neighbors to the north (Maryland) and south (North Carolina).

Those who favor continuing Virginia’s current system of autonomous four-year public institutions fear the homogenization of our institutions. I believe that fear is unfounded. North Carolina has successfully navigated such a system for years, allowing the universities to serve different populations on a cooperative basis.

Virginia has taken an opposite path, allowing each of our 15 public four-year institutions to operate independently. In fact, Virginia’s institutions are more autonomous today than ever, thanks to a 2005 law passed by the legislature.

Such autonomy works when you have qualified governing boards of the institutions. But when board appointments are more about politics than qualifications — plum positions offered by governors to their largest donors — the system breaks down. Just look at the University of Virginia and Norfolk State University for two recent examples.

The autonomy of the institutions creates many other problems. Two financial ones come to mind.

Virginia’s four-year universities compete with each other for scarce state resources, and the allocation the state makes to them is uneven. Although the plan is for them to be treated the same, years of differences have piled up.

The most recent reports show U.Va., at the high end, receiving 111 percent of what it should receive from the state, and Old Dominion University, at the low end, receiving just 84 percent of what the state should provide.

Such a large disparity does not exist for funding for the state’s 23 community colleges.

Rising higher education costs have been discussed for years. JLARC, tasked by the legislature to look into the reasons, reported in June that auxiliary enterprise spending was the single largest driver of increases in student fees. These nonacademic costs are borne completely by the students and include athletics, recreation and housing. A September JLARC report on these costs raised more than a few eyebrows.

JLARC found that, on average, 12 percent of what students pay in tuition and fees for the 2012-2013 academic year was for intercollegiate athletics. The report singles out four institutions — NSU, Longwood University, ODU and Christopher Newport University — as having fees that are “considerably higher.” Longwood’s $2,044 led the pack.

The mandatory athletic fees are necessary because most athletic programs generate less than half the revenues required to operate them. The difference is made up by the students.

The JLARC report recommends that the governing boards of each institution list the amount of the athletic fee on their websites, on the tuition and fees information page.

Virginia’s community colleges don’t have as many of these auxiliary fees. The statewide governing board sets the tuition and mandatory state fees, while allowing each college to set local fees. Those local fees must be approved by the board.

This barely scratches the surface of some of the issues related to “The Virginia Way” of higher education. I’ll explore others in subsequent columns.