Teresa A. Sullivan

Although we are still feeling winter’s effects in Charlottesville, the spring semester is well under way. Students and teachers have returned to their classrooms and laboratories, while those of us with administrative duties are working to ensure a well-planned, productive 2011 for the University. Part of our work this year will focus on the alignment between the University’s priorities and the priorities for higher education identified by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. The thousands of alumni, parents and friends who live outside Virginia may know little about the governor’s work on this issue. The following paragraphs describe how the governor’s priorities, our own priorities, and the work of Virginia’s General Assembly might mesh to create a brighter future for UVA and for higher education generally.

Last summer, the governor formed the Commission on Higher Education Reform, Innovation and Investment. The commission has close connections with UVA. Former Rector Tom Farrell is chairman, and former Rector Heywood Fralin and current Rector Dubby Wynne are members.

The governor asked the commission to consider the current state of higher education in Virginia and to deliver findings and recommendations around a set of key priorities. Those priorities included increasing enrollments of Virginians in colleges and universities (with the ultimate goal of producing 100,000 additional associate and bachelor’s degrees over the next 15 years); boosting the production of graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so-called STEM disciplines); creating new options for expedited degree attainment; forging new public-private partnerships to foster university-based research and workforce preparation; and increasing the use of technology-enhanced instruction to reach greater numbers of students.

These priorities align well with suggestions we have made to the governor’s commission about how UVA can help create more and better opportunities for greater numbers of students. We suggested increased enrollments of students in the STEM fields; new programs for accelerated bachelor’s degree completion in three years, with an option for a master’s degree in a fourth year (we are calling this the 3+1); additional enrollment of adult students in Richmond, Southside and Southwest Virginia; and increased investments in technology-enhanced education to help us reach greater numbers of students who may not be able to come to Charlottesville. 

At the time of this writing, the commission has presented an interim report with recommendations supporting the governor’s priorities. The interim report is online here: bit.ly/HigherEdReform.

The commission’s recommendations align well with the Virginia Business Higher Education Council’s Grow By Degrees campaign (www.growbydegrees.org), which has broad bipartisan support.

The governor has called the report a blueprint to guide legislation during the General Assembly session this year. The governor introduced to the General Assembly the Virginia Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2011, which incorporates strategies identified by the commission to enhance higher education. The General Assembly session began in mid-January and will wrap up on February 26. The governor then has 30 days, until March 28, to amend, approve, or veto bills enacted during the session. This means that all of these issues will have begun working their way through the legislative process by the time you are reading these pages. For updates and breaking news, visit www.virginia.edu/uvatoday.

Although the commission report recommended increased enrollments of Virginia students, it did not mandate in-state/out-of-state student ratios. We plan to protect our current ratio of approximately 70 percent in-state and 30 percent out-of-state enrollment. Students from other states and other nations bring a great diversity of backgrounds and perspectives to University life. Our Virginia students would have a less meaningful experience here if they were surrounded only by other Virginians. To produce more spaces for students, we will have to increase enrollment modestly—possibly by 1,400 undergraduate and 100 graduate students over a four- to five-year period, on top of current enrollment projections. We have adequate housing, dining and recreation spaces to accommodate this enrollment growth, but we will need appropriate funding to add the necessary faculty and staff to support the growth. We expect the state to provide appropriate funding for the additional Virginia students.

Regardless of how the Virginia Higher Education Opportunity Act plays out in the General Assembly this year, Governor McDonnell and the commission members have identified important issues that will continue to resonate in our discussions about higher education in Virginia and the nation. The stakes are high. We are falling behind other developed nations in the number of men and women earning college degrees, especially those who receive the STEM training that allows them to keep pace with today’s rapid technological advancement. At the same time, public colleges and universities face serious challenges related to cost, access and affordability. Fortunately, the governor is focused on creating a new financial model to support higher education, and the governor’s commission is committed to investing in higher education through improvements to base funding and performance funding incentives. This is good news for us and for higher education generally.

As we strive to become more efficient and effective, we must recognize that UVA is already a national model of efficiency and productivity as measured by a broad range of publications and organizations. For more than 20 years, U.S. News & World Report has ranked UVA among the top 25 institutions in the country. In each of these 20 years, UVA also has been the most efficient among the top 25 public and private institutions as measured by what it costs to produce a graduate. UVA consistently ranks high in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine’s “100 Best Values in Public Colleges.” This year, UVA was ranked No. 3 in the nation for the fifth time in six years. While we work to find new and better ways to teach students and operate the University, we are starting from a solid foundation of proven performance.

Universities are engines of job creation and economic growth, but they do more than that. They prepare young men and women to be thoughtful leaders and agents for the public good. This University—with its focus on honor, ethics, service and self-governance—equips students with a unique set of personal skills and values for the work at hand. Thomas Jefferson wanted this University to produce educated citizens whose knowledge would enable them to preserve democracy and perpetuate human freedom. Toward the end of his life, Jefferson wrote a letter to a friend describing the University as “the last of my mortal cares, and the last service I can render my country.” Today, as we strive to create greater educational opportunities for more students, we are working to hold up our end of the bargain.