Helen E. Dragas, a Hampton Roads businesswoman, was appointed to the University of Virginia’s governing board in 2008 by then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D). She was reappointed by then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) in 2012. She led the Board of Visitors as U-Va.’s first female rector from 2011 to 2013. Her term on the board ended June 30. Here she offers a parting viewpoint on the direction of the public flagship university.
By Helen E. Dragas
Regular citizens here and around the world are expressing disapproval of their lack of control over crushing policies made by the disconnected elite. With national student loan debt exceeding $1.3 trillion, American students and families must feel frustrations similar to those vented across the Atlantic in the recent Brexit vote.
After an eight-year term on the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia, I can confidently attest that this disconnect is alive and well at the commonwealth’s flagship. Despite significant growth in state and federal funding, the board has voted to raise tuition for new students by 30 percent since 2013. Administrators regularly seek — and get — annual raises for faculty well above the rate of inflation. While some secretarial and administrative staff earn more than the governor of Virginia, the median family income in the state remains stuck in the mid-$60,000’s.
It’s easy for accomplished and wealthy board members — including me — to sit around a fancy oval table and pass judgment about what’s affordable or what’s not. But we don’t walk in the shoes of everyday Virginia parents struggling to keep body and soul together and a child (or more) in college. And accolades of “Best Value” regularly received by U-Va. fall flat on the ears of students for whom all choices are a financial strain.
Earlier this year, just before leaving home for a Board of Visitors event, a Google alert linked me to a story about a U-Va. student forced to beg online for help to pay her tuition and to eat. In anybody’s book that should be shameful. A keen sense of moral unease deadened my appetite as I later dined with my fellow board members, administrators and deans on crab cakes, filet mignon, and designer desserts in a luxury country inn owned by the university.
Without doubt, the forces of growing income inequality, increasing diversity, soaring costs, technological changes and global influences have come home to roost in Charlottesville.
In fact, the commonwealth is a microcosm of the country. We are well off and not. We are black and white and brown and every other color of the rainbow. We are global citizens. But there’s one thing Virginia’s families have in common, and that’s the desire to create opportunities for the next generation to grow and prosper, and to do so without mortgaging the future.
Its founding DNA imprints U-Va. as a very public institution with what should be a very public responsibility.
Yet since 2009, the university has raised in-state tuition by 74 percent, cut grant aid to the poorest Virginians, formed an administrative committee to explore secession from the state, hired a private university governance consultant for $200,000, spent more than $100 million on financial aid to out-of-state students, raised the net price for some Virginia families to subsidize others, and proposed gagging board members from talking to legislators, the press and the public. Thousands of Virginia students who seek admission are denied a coveted spot every year. The University of Virginia is slowly being privatized.
As a native Virginian whose family’s tax dollars have supported the commonwealth for decades, watching this process unfold from a front row seat has been excruciatingly painful.
At our June meeting, administrators revealed their coffers include a $2.3 billion pot of reserves, surpluses and earnings that for years has been hidden in plain sight, loosely labeled as necessary to support operations. Now, through financial maneuvering, this treasury has been liberated expressly to support strategic initiatives that will enhance the university’s reputation. As administrators requested a series of board actions to facilitate that change, members were not apprised of the large sum at stake. Only later did we learn that these moves had created a $2.3 billion slush fund.
Privately referred to as “unfound money” (that is, unfound by legislators, the press, and — as a result — the general public), this astounding sum could run the entire University Academic Division for a year and a half. It would pay the four-year tuition bills for 44,000 Virginia students. It is 20 percent more than the market value of all of U-Va.’s 200-year buildup of educational and general program buildings and facilities. A conservative estimate of its annual earnings potential — $100 million — could be used to cut the tuition of all in-state undergraduates by 70 percent.
While others and I have made futile requests for more detail on these funds — with a top administrator recently citing fear that the originating sources would try to reclaim them — credit belongs to the current rector, William Goodwin, for tenaciously pressing administrators for transparency about this astounding accumulation.
But to consider hoarding a multi-billion-dollar slush fund for pet projects doesn’t reflect reality. By way of example, one recent proposal suggested a $50 million program for self-care training to include journaling, meditation and yoga for nursing students.
Proper public use of this public gold mine (and funds received by the university from any source become public dollars) could put an excellent education within reach of more middle- and lower-income students. Look outside. Many of Virginia’s families are already drowning in tuition debt that robs graduates of the opportunity to gain basic independence, let alone start small businesses that Virginia so desperately needs for economic growth.
It’s wrong when reputational rankings in magazines matter more than serving Virginians. But when public universities are run like private academic playgrounds, and boards act as unelected taxing authorities, perhaps it’s time for a higher power to weigh in.
I believe there’s a better way to do business in Virginia.
Governor McAuliffe and the General Assembly should make strengthening transparency and accountability a priority for the 2017 session through a few simple measures. First, they should ensure that the women and men appointed to serve our public colleges understand and pledge to uphold their primary duty to Virginia citizens. Requiring significantly more rigorous orientation and training delivered by independent, objective sources would help board members see through a wider lens than that of administrators. Having witnessed abuse of Virginia’s sunshine laws by out-of-state appointees in order to increase in-state tuition by double digits, I believe legislators should stipulate that only Virginians be allowed to serve as board officers and chairs of certain critical committees.
The so-called “legislative liaisons” employed directly by colleges and universities should be subject to the same registration and reporting laws as all lobbyists, and the records of all officers — including college presidents — should be subject to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. Finally, requiring public comment periods at board meetings and creating accountability back to the taxpayers they serve would bring higher education into the modern world of governance.
These steps alone could help ensure that U-Va. remains true to its 200-year-old mandate. In the meantime, its leaders should voluntarily reclaim its historic, public heritage by denouncing the rankings and embracing an identity that is more diverse, more affordable, more accessible and more nimble in adjusting to the dynamics of today’s learners.
Let’s keep our public treasures excellent, affordable and truly public.