Preliminary recommendations from the Public University Working Group, released this week, make clear that U-Va. would remain a public university. University officials said that the discussions are part of a brainstorming exercise as President Teresa A. Sullivan develops a strategy for the university and that there are no plans to make such a move. In its report, the group acknowledges that such a dramatic change at U-Va. would be “complex and challenging.”
Already, the preliminary proposal has drawn criticism and questions from the university community and state lawmakers, who said moving U-Va. toward a private model could be contrary to the public mission Thomas Jefferson laid out when he founded the university nearly two centuries ago. U-Va. is among the nation’s top public universities, and about 70 percent of its undergraduates are state residents.
The 11-page draft report says that change is needed at the university because of “significant, sustained, and permanent decreases in federal and state funding.” Under the proposal, U-Va. would give up much of its state funding, which totaled more than $154 million in 2012-13, or about 6 percent of its $2.6 billion budget. U-Va. would then shift from being a “state supported” or “state controlled” university to being affiliated or associated with the state, giving administrators more power. Members of the group found that the autonomy gained from separation could be beneficial for the university and the state.
“Now is the moment for bold, decisive, and transformative action,” the report states.
U-Va. spokesman McGregor McCance said the working group — which Sullivan organized but did not sit on — has not finalized its report.
“President Sullivan has no intention or interest in attempting to make U.Va. a private institution,” McCance wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. “She strongly believes and has consistently stated that the University of Virginia has a unique and important mission as a public university and that it embraces this mission and the responsibility of serving the Commonwealth and the nation through that role.”
Sullivan’s definition of “public” appears to align with many of the working group’s preliminary ideas, according to a memo she sent to members of a strategic planning committee on Sept. 1. Sullivan included a list of seven public university principles, one of which stated that “being a public university in the 21st century is no longer what it was in the 19th and 20th centuries.” State support has dwindled, and the federal government has become a major supporter through tax credits, deductions, financial aid, grants and contracts, according to the document, and greater autonomy does not make universities any less public.