The vote to increase tuition and costs for U-Va. students came after more than four months of intense debate about the university’s financial future. Some board members argued that any tuition increase was too much during difficult economic times, while U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan and her staff advocated for tuition increases to offset declining state funding.
Earlier this year, Sullivan and her staff released a four-year financial plan that called for moderate, predictable tuition increases, plus charging third- and fourth-year students an additional $2,000 per year to cover the costs of their smaller classes, advising, career opportunities, internships and global programs. That extra charge was at first called “tuition,” then referred to as an “Academic Excellence Fee.” The controversial concept was not mentioned in the latest materials given to board members this week.
Although Sullivan and her top two deputies mostly quietly listened at Thursday’s meeting, they have argued previously that two decades of declining state funding have starved the school of much-needed revenue. The university holds top rankings and a storied reputation now, but they say the school’s reputation could slip if officials do not strategically hire the next generation of faculty, fund innovative projects and encourage research.
Board leader Helen E. Dragas, who helped organize a failed ouster of Sullivan last summer, has long advocated for keeping tuition rates low and reining in university spending. Dragas argued Thursday that U-Va. leaders have long used decreased state funding as a “scapegoat” for ever-increasing spending.
Dragas and another board member, Dr. Edward D. Miller, voted against a package of tuition increases, which included charging graduate and professional students more. Later in the meeting, Dragas threatened to not vote to approve a capital improvements plan because it included a maintenance facility with a high estimated price.
“We cannot stay on an unsustainable tuition increase path,” Dragas told the board in explaining her vote. “A lot of institutions across the country, a lot of states, are holding the line on tuition this year.”
Several board members passionately argued that if U-Va. did not increase tuition — or did not increase it enough — the school could find itself in financial danger. That group included John L. Nau III, a beer distributor from Texas who appeared closely allied with Dragas last summer. Nau added up the expenses the university faces in the next school year — such as unfunded or partially funded mandates from the state, inflation and other expenses — and said that the proposed increases didn’t seem adequate, even if the university cuts expenses.
“From a business perspective, you are not giving yourself a lot of room to wiggle,” Nau said, advocating for higher fees. “It seems to me that we are living right on a razor’s edge.”
During the board meeting, a few dozen activists gathered in the historic Rotunda building as part of an ongoing campaign demanding better pay for low-level staff members. They held posters with the slogans “No more excuses” and “Living wage now!”