RICHMOND, Feb. 8 -- Both chambers of the General Assembly adopted milestone legislation Tuesday to give the state's colleges and universities new freedoms from government control.
Lawmakers promised the proposals would save the state money by letting colleges become more efficient and would provide parents more predictability regarding tuition. At the same time, they pledged to hold universities accountable for fulfilling state goals, including affordable and accessible education, in exchange for lessened control.
The companion bills that passed the Senate and House of Delegates -- which differ in some details but not in concept -- are scaled back versions of the vision that was offered by the state's top three universities in the fall.
The University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary and Virginia Tech had asked for a rewrite of their founding charters that essentially would have severed ties with state government and given them more leeway to set tuition rates.
Instead, the bills would set up three levels of autonomy for state colleges. Every school -- not just those three -- would be offered some additional flexibility from bureaucratic rules in such areas as purchasing and personnel.
The bills won't change much immediately about the way colleges do business but are important because they open the door for future independence and for their symbolism. State government rarely cedes autonomy.
Some universities could negotiate new agreements between their boards of visitors and state government, giving boards full authority to manage their finances. The deals would require both gubernatorial and legislative approval, through a mechanism that differs somewhat in the House and Senate.
Each university would publish a six-year academic and financial plan to include a yearly tuition range, based on varying levels of state aid. University officials said they hope the plans would allow manageable and regular tuition increases, instead of the alternating freezes and spikes that have accompanied unpredictable state funding in recent years.
College presidents hailed the overwhelming support from the legislature. The House of Delegates adopted HB 2866 on a vote of 76 to 22, and the Senate approved SB 1327 on a 37 to 3 vote.
Glenn DuBois, chairman of the colleges' council of presidents, said the bills are driven by the "public agenda" -- a commitment, by law, to work with the state on specified goals, which also include improved graduation rates, strengthened agreements between two- and four-year colleges and closer ties to local school divisions.
"We're saying, 'let up on the controls,' and we can do a better job for Virginia," said DuBois, who is also chancellor of the state's community college system.
Management agreements with each school are sure to be subject to intense negotiations, perhaps equivalent to the months of behind-the-scenes work that led to Tuesday's action.
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), who has reveled in deal making as a businessman and politician, said he would like to hammer out the first deal governing the historic new relationships.
"I see this as not only potential freedom for the universities and less bureaucracy but also a way for the state to guarantee some of its long-term interests and put it with measurable standards," he said.
The move is emblematic of a nationwide trend in higher education, experts said, and it's being watched closely.
Other states are talking about similar ideas, asking for more independence and wanting to become more entrepreneurial, said Lara Couturier of the Futures Project at Brown University, a higher education policy think tank.
Joni Finney of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education gives Virginia credit for looking for a solution that would continue to serve the public interest.
"The reality is that finances for state universities have changed fundamentally," she said. "They don't just need a financial fix. They need one that addresses public policy concerns in the long run."