A five-year blueprint for bolstering the University of Virginia’s academic reputation, improving the student experience and recruiting top faculty will go before the Board of Visitors this week.
Crafted by administrators over the past year with input from more than 10,000 students, professors, donors, parents and others, a draft is to be discussed Friday in a meeting of the full board, which then could approve the plan.
Like public universities across the country, UVa has faced a steady drain of state money and increased pressures to focus on finances, as well as academics. The 55-page draft acknowledges the shift, referring to the school’s “strategy of becoming the first privately financed public university that remains true to its public mandate.”
But President Teresa A. Sullivan also was careful to emphasize the state flagship’s commitment to building on its status as one of the nation’s elite public universities.
She identifies raising UVa’s reputation to a “consensus top 20” academic institution among goals listed in a Nov. 1 letter to the board. UVa currently is ranked 23rd by U.S. News & World Report and 29th by Forbes.
The plan also calls for UVa becoming more competitive in landing federal research money, as well as providing better advising and more hands-on experiences for students.
Officials repeatedly have declined to say how much implementing the plan would cost. But Sullivan said Tuesday that the changes would be worth the investment.
“At the end of five years, the educational experience for students will be better than it is now,” she said.
The administration will be seeking donors to help support changes under the plan, Sullivan said.
“The cost … won’t be entirely borne by new revenues coming in, say, from tuition,” she said.
But Sullivan said she’s not ruling out the possibility of tuition increases to help pay for parts of the plan, especially improvements to curriculum and student engagement.
“I think parents are willing to pay for a great experience, which is the reason they send their student here,” she said.
Enhancing the experience under the plan also would require recruiting top-flight replacements for about 350 faculty members expected to retire by 2020.
The school lags behind many of its competitors in faculty pay. Among 62 institutions in the American Association of Universities — which includes many of the nation’s top research universities — UVa ranks 34th in faculty pay. Earlier this year, the board adopted a resolution to help put UVa in the top 20 by June 2017.
Sullivan has estimated that boosting the school’s pay ranking would cost $65 million. Officials have said that money would have to be found within the budget rather than by increasing it.
Several parts of the strategic plan are designed to lure faculty. Moves would include upgrading infrastructure and equipment for high-level research. John D. Simon, the university’s provost, also has stressed the need for “startup packages” — seed research money for new faculty. Luring in top new faculty, along with improving facilities, is expected to help secure more federal research funding.
The plan aims for UVa to rank in the top 40 universities receiving competitive research funding. The Art & Science Group, a Baltimore-based consultant hired by the university to assess its position, noted in a report released earlier this year that the school has slipped behind some of its competitors for research money.
“The bottom line, in my view, is research costs money,” Simon told the board in August. “Research is an investment.”
That leads to another of the school’s challenges — investing to enhance the school’s status as an elite public and leading research university while maintaining affordability for students.
The administration will be working with the Board of Visitors on a revised tuition and financial aid model, which they expect to present in April. The university has taken criticism this year for replacing a portion of the grants set aside under the financial aid program, AccessUVa, with loans.
Board member Helen E. Dragas, the former rector, joined first-year board member Kevin J. Fay in opposing the changes. Dragas has said recently that she supports most of the other parts of the plan but wants more discussion on tuition and financial aid.
“The strategic plan does not fully address the most important questions of academic quality and affordability,” Dragas said.
In August, some board members inquired about the possibility of keeping AccessUVa’s benefits for state students — essentially prioritizing Virginia residents over out-of-state students.
Sullivan told the board that could make UVa less competitive in the hunt for top students from around the country, and that, in turn, could affect the university’s reputation and rankings.
The school’s reputation is an asset for state students, Sullivan said Tuesday.
“If we lost that … I don’t think you’d have so many students interested in attending UVa,” she said.
Sullivan also noted that 70 percent of the student body is in-state, and UVa has special admissions and transfer agreements with community colleges around Virginia — benefits it doesn’t offer community college students from outside the state.
Having a balance of out-of-state and international students also enhances the experience for state students, she said.
“It opens up doors for them, knowing people from around the world,” Sullivan said. “That’s a very valuable resource.”
Enhancing the student experience was another key plank in the Art & Science report and one highlighted in the draft the board will consider this week. A strategy listed in the plan refers to building on the university’s “distinctive residential culture.”
The university wants students to have more hands-on experiences during their undergraduate years. That means more international programs, expanding UVa’s internship placement program and establishing an entrepreneur center on Grounds.
The plan also calls for the reorganization of the advising system. The university would focus on using parent and alumni connections to help students land internships. Students would work with advisers on setting goals, then track their progress online.
Maurie McInnis, vice provost for academic affairs, told the board in September that half of undergraduates participate in research programs. She said she wants that to be 100 percent.
“It would become a defining part of an education at UVa,” she said.