Virginia needs another round of restructuring - The Daily Progress: Guest Columnists

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Virginia needs another round of restructuring

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Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2013 12:15 am

On the seventh anniversary of the enactment of the Restructured Higher Education Financial and Administrative Operations Act, Virginia and its universities face new and different challenges, along with some of the old and familiar.

President Teresa Sullivan is good for the University of Virginia, even if she turns out to be a transitional, rather than a long-term, president. I hope she stays 20 years, but she will be offered other options, at places that might have deeper ranks of existing faculty or larger endowments for student financial aid and faculty salaries.

She has already proved that UVa’s troops will rally to a good cause, and she has established herself as the female leader of a formerly all-male university. I attribute a lot of today’s change at UVa to the influx of women and minority people and to a general increase in socioeconomic diversity of students.

The subtle signs of the University of Virginia as “a rich man’s school” have begun to disappear, along with the negative vestiges of racial and gender prejudice. Less enlightened actions and comments from a slower-changing governing board are widely noted and rejected.

For many observers, UVa’s previous president, John Casteen, was responsible for a remarkable level of diversity achieved in his 20-year tenure, ending in June 2010. Casteen was son of a shipyard employee (not a top manager) and had a personal appreciation for financial aid. He promoted diversity whenever he could, usually from behind the scenes, making few ripples, no upheavals.

President Casteen had a forgivable tendency to appear to be “in” with the power people, on and off the Grounds and even in Richmond. He led a remarkably effective administrative team, and his contributions were felt around the Grounds and across the commonwealth, even as far as Blacksburg, and included the General Assembly.

The Restructured Higher Education Financial and Administrative Operations Act of 2006 had John Casteen’s fingerprints all over it. On July 1, 2006, after Virginia’s top leaders in higher education had spent untold hours of behind-the-scenes planning and negotiating, the governor and General Assembly approved a monumental change to the structure of higher education in the state.

“A new era was created by the Restructured Higher Education Financial and Administrative Operations Act, which gives all 16 public colleges and universities new freedom from state control in areas such as spending, tuition and personnel management, while also requiring the schools to meet specific goals set by the state” (UVa press release). The University of Virginia, along with Virginia Tech and the College of William and Mary, were granted the highest of three levels of autonomy available under the new system, which President Casteen described as  “a framework for transforming public higher education.”

This month marks the seventh anniversary of the enactment of that legislation, at a time when Virginia and its universities face new and different challenges, along with some of the old and familiar.

Only if Virginia, the state, can get itself together in terms of its top leadership, will Virginia, the university, have a chance to climb higher in the national hierarchy of higher education.

It is now necessary for the state government to have the courage and leadership to establish a new system of governance for UVa — and perhaps the other, older state universities, such as W&M and Virginia Tech — much as was done in setting up independent funding and budget procedures seven years ago. 

It continues to be difficult to separate the two Virginias — the state and the university.

Also, when one thinks about John Casteen, it is hard to imagine him being far from his Virginia roots. Let’s hope that he, like his mentor Thomas Jefferson, will accept another challenge in education. The two Virginias need him  — right now — to again help to restructure higher education.


Gerald L. Cooper spent his 43-year career in education as an administrator, counselor and teacher in four college preparatory schools (including Woodberry Forest) and at two universities, including Winston-Salem State, a historically black public university. He closed his career in 1994-2000 as executive director of a college access program serving 10 public high schools, then consulted with former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles in the founding of a college access program in rural Patrick County. He lives in Norfolk.

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