Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

Innovation in the Business of Higher Education

Virginia universities shared business best practices today at Virginia Commonwealth University with the hope of finding ways to shave costs and improve the student experience. 

George Mason University expects to save $3 million over the life of a five-year contract by outsourcing its printing operations to an outside vendor, defaulting to black-and-white print over color, and printing on both sides of the paper.

Universities make huge investments in parking lots and parking decks like this one at the University of Virginia. Today’s students are less car-centric than previous generations, and parking permit revenue has been falling. UVa has turned to metered parking to provide more convenience and recoup revenue.

The University of Virginia expects to generate $300,000 extra in parking revenue this year by shifting from the traditional arrangement, in which students purchase year-long parking passes for a space in a particular lot, to a system of metered parking that provides more flexibility as to where and when students park.

Virginia Commonwealth University doesn’t expect to save money from its Beyond Orientation program, an online orientation program for student’s parents and family members, but the university does hope to increase parental engagement in a low-cost way. When parents feel more comfortable navigating the university bureaucracy, they can provide more support for their kids, which bolsters the goal of graduating more students on time.

These were just three among the dozens of stories about higher-ed innovation highlighted at the “Partnering for Progress” event held today at VCU’s Siegel Center. Some stories reflect nothing more glamorous than the adoption of best practices that are common elsewhere. But some innovations are truly ground-breaking and have the potential to transform how higher-ed institutions function.

The event, itself a first-of-a-kind, featured an hour’s worth of speechifying and exhortations, plus two hours for schmoozing, visiting booths, listening to presentations, and swapping business cards. “Partnering for Progress” was backed by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council’s Growth4VA initiative, a public relations campaign driving home the message that Virginia’s colleges and universities make critical contributions to economic growth and prosperity. A recurring Growth4VA theme is that while state government needs to do more to support its public system of education, Virginia’s colleges and universities need to be more creative about controlling costs, reining in tuition increases, and helping students graduate with less debt.

There wasn’t time to visit every booth, but I had conversations with enough presenters to be persuaded that some very imaginative thinking is taking place in Virginia’s colleges and universities. It’s an open question whether these bright ideas get the funding and administrative support needed to transform the cost-encrusted higher-ed system. While some of the initiatives seem impressive, the thought occurred to me, why isn’t every institution adopting these changes? And what’s taking them so long?

Still, I came away convinced that there may be hope for Virginia’s higher education system. While higher-ed’s lobbyists and advocates may, for purposes of public consumption, be putting blaming runaway tuition on cutbacks in state support, administrators acknowledge the institutions themselves also bear some responsibility for holding down costs. Here follow some of the more promising programs I encountered in my perambulations through the Siegel Center.

Energy efficiency. Gains in energy efficiency had leveled off for several years at the College of William & Mary when Farley Hunter came on board to focus on utility management. Having worked in private-sector property management, he quickly spotted numerous opportunities to cut the university’s $7 million to $8 million in energy bills. W&M cobbled together a $140,000 revolving fund to invest in projects with at least a three-year payback, mostly in areas such as HVAC, ventilation and lighting. That’s a modest sum for a 200-building campus, concedes Hunter, but if he can demonstrate success, he expects the university to invest more.

Faculty productivity. University professors persevere through years-long Ph.D. programs to gain mastery of their subject matter. But unlike school teachers, they receive little instruction on how to teach. The University of Virginia Center for Teaching Excellence created the Course Design Institute to help professors organize and design better courses. Participants engage in a short but intensive exercise that begins with the question, “What do I want my students to know 3-5 years after the course is over?” The program uses proprietary software to build a syllabus and create “knowledge checks” that align teaching objectives with tests and assessments. About 500 UVa faculty members have gone through the program. Said program director Michael Palmer: “We created a revolution.”

Research productivity. University of Virginia researchers apply for roughly $1 billion in research grants in every year, and succeed in nailing down about $300 million worth. Only two years ago, however, the paper-based system for administering the research applications was extravagantly inefficient. It wasted space on literally hundreds of filing cabinets. Files were frequently misplaced (at an average estimated cost of $125 per file). The university even maintained a dedicated car and driver to carry papers from office to office around the grounds for needed signatures.

Ironically, UVa’s inefficiency turned out to be a blessing, said Vonda Durr, senior director of electronic research administration. Other institutions purchased multi-million-dollar software solutions to deal with the same paperwork issues, but many have them are dissatisfied and ready to scrap them. UVa learned from their mistakes and drew upon the university’s in-house IT staff to design a custom solution, starting with a portal for principal investigators, which makes contracts, account balances and other critical information accessible through one online location. The experience was so positive that the Office of Sponsored Programs added new capabilities such as electronic signatures, workflow tracking systems, and data visualization tools. Among other tangible benefits, the university has freed up space by getting rid of the filing cabinets, driven down printing costs, and saved an estimated $5 million in faculty and staff time.

Student retention. One third of the students entering Virginia Commonwealth University are considered “first generation” students — that is, they are the first members of the family to attend college. They are disproportionately poor and minority, and they have a harder time graduating from college. The graduation rate for first-time students is 78%, considerably lower than the 85% rate for all students, and GPAs tend to be lower. A high priority for VCU is improving the graduate rate for first-timers. The university’s You First program assembles a variety of orientation programs, faculty-led sessions, networking events, and support resources to ease the transition of first-timers into college life.

Virginia State University has a program with a similar purpose — helping students complete their college degree — that concentrates support services in a single location where students can access a wide variety of services. Students learn study skills and time management, get tutoring, receive counseling on which courses to take, and gain access to other support services. Every student is provided a mentor.

Radford University is adopting first-year living-learning communities organized around common interests such as the environment, the maker movement, biology, research, and the arts. Students living in the same residence halls take shared classes and engage in other activities together, building a sense of community and belonging. Participants have measurably higher retention rates and higher GPAs. Radford also uses data analytics to predict and improve student attrition. Remarkably, university ID swipes in dormitories and the fitness center is one of three factors with greatest predictive value. The data allows staff to reach out to students identified as being at risk of not returning to the university.

Virginia’s system of higher-education has the second highest six-year graduation rate in the country, second only to Utah. The payoff for students is huge — fewer drop out with big student debts they can’t repay. And the payoff is big for Virginia as well. When more students graduate, Virginia inches closer to its 20-year goal of becoming the best educated state in the country.

Even Progressives Acknowledge the Failure of Indiscriminate Student Loans

I’ve been making the case for a couple of years now that if you’re looking for a real example of social injustice, take a look at the United States higher education system. For years liberals and progressives argued that everyone deserves a college education, that government should help anyone with a high school degree attend college, and that poor students could borrow huge sums to pay for ever-escalating tuition and fees without ill consequence. Now even the social justice warriors are waking up to the social disaster they have wrought.

Readers of Bacon’s Rebellion know full well that the policy of indiscriminately handing out student loans to everyone has created a new class of debt slaves. Not all high school graduates are academically prepared for college-level work. Not everyone who undertakes to earn a college degree is financially able to complete their degrees, even with financial assistance. As a result, literally millions of Americans have taken on college debt without earning the degree or other workforce credential that would allow them to obtain a job that pays enough to carry that debt.

The members of the new debtor class are disproportionately poor, and they are disproportionately African-American. This is a real social injustice, not an imagined one, and it has arisen from the blind pursuit of good intentions.

Finally, progressives are waking up. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, data from a U.S. Department of Education study provides a “first-ever look at long-term outcomes for student loan borrowers, including results by race and ethnicity.”

The data show that 12 years after entering college, the typical African American student who started in the 2003-04 school year and took on debt for their undergraduate education owed more on their federal student loans than they originally borrowed. This holds true even for students who finished a bachelor’s degree at a public institution. One reason they might not be paying down their loans? Nearly half of African American borrowers defaulted, including 75 percent of those who dropped out of for-profit colleges.

Among the detailed findings:

  • African-Americans borrow more on average than their peers.
  • The typical African-American made no progress over 12 years in paying down his or her loan. African American borrowers who started college in 1995-96 owed 101% of their loans a dozen years later, compared to 60% for whites and 72% for Hispanics.
  • A bachelor’s degree does not insulate African-American borrowers from bad outcomes. College drop-outs are not the only ones who default; college grads do, too.
  • Nearly half of all African-Americans defaulted on their student loans. One reason, suggests the analysis, is that African-Americans take on higher debt on average.
  • Seventy-five percent of African-American dropouts from for-profit colleges defaulted. (No word on how this compares to the percentage of African-American dropouts from public colleges or Historically Black Colleges and Universities.)

A conservative/libertarian reaction to this data is that the system hands out student loans too indiscriminately. Many Americans — of whatever race — would be better off learning a trade in a two-year college than attending a four-year college. Some would be better off not going to college at all and learning on the job. Student loans, like any other kind of loan, should be granted based upon a person’s ability to repay the loan.

The problem is that granting educational loans on the basis of a student’s ability to repay — based upon key predictors like academic preparedness and household resources — would “discriminate” against the poor and, because African-Americans are disproportionately poor, against African-Americans. In today’s political climate, that’s a non-starter.

The Center for American Progress expresses an admirable sentiment when it suggests that policymakers should strive to create a world where African American students don’t start their careers with large loan debts they struggle to repay. But the CAP’s answer is to admit more poor African-Americans into better institutions with more resources to help them succeed. How? By “fixing” admissions practices and funding systems “so that African American students do not end up disproportionately underrepresented at institutions with the greatest resources to educate them.” 

Translation: Get higher-ed institutions to admit more African-Americans in the blind hope that somehow they will do better regardless of whether they are academically prepared. Great idea. That’ll work out well.

For Irish, Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Koreans and other Americans, the typical family’s climb from poverty into affluence took place over generations. Parents sacrificed so their children could rise a step higher on the educational and socioeconomic ladder. Today’s social justice warriors are impatient. They want African-Americans to vault from Mosby Court to the University of Virginia and a job in the hedge-fund industry in a single generation. A handful of individuals are so extraordinary that they can succeed. Most aren’t. Instead of reaching for achievable goals for self improvement, millions are pursuing unrealistic dreams and winding up in debt bondage as a result.

More Nuggets from the Higher Ed Summit

The 2017 Virginia Summit on Higher Education and Economic Competitiveness covered a wider range of topics than I could possibly pack into the one article I filed yesterday. Here are some other noteworthy factoids and observations that came out of that meeting:

Internships to Jobs. A major theme of the summit was the need for more “experiential” training — internships, apprenticeships and other bridges between educational institutions and the workplace. In making the case for internships, Radford University President Brian Hemphill stated that employers convert 60% of their interns into full-time employees. Radford is making internships a centerpiece of its educational program, making the commitment to have 75% of its graduates to have internships by 2020.

The five-year retention rate of employees hired straight out of college for Dominion Virginia Energy is about 33%, said Paul Koonce, executive vice president of the energy giant. For students who had interned with the company two or more years, the retention rate is 100%. The company employs 300 to 400 interns across 17 states.

To graduate on time, try taking a full course load. Virginia higher-ed institutions stand out in the percentage of students who graduate “on time,” that is, within six years. But there’s still plenty of room for improvement. At Radford, said Hemphill, 83% of the students are taking 15 course credits or more each semester. But that means 17% are taking lighter course loads. Said Hemphill: “We need to get that to 100%.”

The community college path to a B.A. degree. One of Virginia’s main strategies to bring down the cost of a four-year degree is to encourage students to study in community college for two years and then transfer to a four-year college to take more advanced courses in fulfillment of a major. But there’s a fly in the ointment. Hemphill again: On average students lose 13 credits (almost an entire semester) when they transfer.

Want efficiency? Try stable funding. Another common theme was the need for more stable state funding for higher education. Frequently mentioned was the idea of establishing a reserve fund for higher education to buffer institutions from backtracking on promised support. Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, next in line to be Speaker of the House, quoted Richmond businessman and former University of Virginia Rector Bill Goodwin as saying, if the state wants universities to be more efficient, the state needs to stabilize funding. Volatile state funding creates uncertainty. Faced with uncertainty, colleges hedge their bets. Hedging bets is the enemy of efficiency.

Physician, educate thyself! Democratic candidate for Governor Ralph Northam, a physician, worries that Virginia isn’t producing enough doctors. Virginia has four medical schools, but doctors don’t go from medical school directly into the workforce. They must undergo training in residencies — and Virginia doesn’t not have enough. As I understand it, though, residency funding comes from Medicare, so I’m not sure there’s much that Virginia can do about it.

Making the Link Between Higher-Ed and Economic Development

Anup Ghosh, founder of Invincea Labs, the kind of company Virginia business leaders would like to see more of emerging from state colleges and universities.Photo credit: Washington Post.

If there’s one thing that big business, colleges, universities, Republicans and Democrats agree upon, it’s that Virginia’s public system of higher education is essential for workforce development, social mobility, economic competitiveness, and building the economy of the future. The unanimity of opinion was on full display today at the 2017 Virginia Summit on Higher Education and Economic Competitiveness in Richmond.

A series of speakers including the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor hammered away at a common theme. Virginia’s economy has slowed, people are leaving the state for the first time since records were first kept in the 1940s, and the Old Dominion has declined in a number of best-state-for-business rankings. To revitalize the economy, Virginia needs to invest in its colleges, community colleges and universities to equip workers with 21st century skills and create innovation ecosystems capable of spinning university research into new businesses and jobs.

If those messages sound familiar, it’s because they largely coincide with the goals announced last week by Growth4Virginia, an initiative of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, which put on the summit. The council, comprised of college presidents and prominent businessmen, has been working with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce to build public awareness of higher-ed’s contribution to the economy.

Beyond articulating four broad strategies — making Virginia the top state for talent, making Virginia a home for entrepreneurs and innovators, providing affordable access for all Virginians, and preparing Virginians for great jobs and great lives — the conference did not stake out any public policy positions. The event seemed more geared to raising consciousness that something needs to be done.

However, it was not apparent that the consensus strategies, hemmed in as they are by scarce state resources, will accomplish much. Two dissenting themes emerged in the panel discussions. First, Virginia can crank out more graduates, but there is no guarantee that the grads will stay here if they can’t find jobs. Second, Virginia can pour money into university research, but R&D activity won’t generate enterprises and jobs unless other elements of the innovation ecosystem are in place.

Peter Blake, executive director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), set the scene by describing Virginia’s progress toward reaching the goals of the Virginia Plan for Higher Education. The most audacious goal is to make Virginia the “best educated state” in the country by 2030, leaping past Massachusetts, Colorado, Connecticut, Minnesota and Washington. As a practical matter, that means granting 1.5 million undergraduate degrees and workforce credentials between 2015 and 2030. Two years into the initiative, Blake said, Virginia is on track to its goal, having granted 265,000.

Boosting Virginia from the sixth best educated state to No. 1 “will not be a light lift,” Blake said. “It will require sustained attention.”

Neither Blake nor anyone else at the conference gave an estimate of how much it would cost to achieve that goal. But for the most part, Virginia’s business leaders at the conclave accepted the necessity of investing in the higher-ed system.

The Virginia Chamber of Commerce is focused on improving Virginia’s best-state-for-business rankings, and the quality of the workforce is one of the important metrics, said Dennis Treacy, chamber chairman. Particularly essential are the so-called STEM-H (science, technology, engineering, math and health) degrees.

Stephen Moret, president of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, agreed that the quality of Virginia’s workforce is vital for recruiting out-of-state business. “Human capital is the single greatest driver of prosperity in the economy,” he said. “Incentives still matter, but what matters the most is human capital. If we win on human capital, we win, period.” As for the goal of becoming the best educated state, he said, “I love that goal.”

But he warned that there is a “relatively small correlation between degree production and degree attainment.” In other words, it’s one thing to grant the degrees, it’s another to find jobs for people with those degrees. The reason so many Virginians, half of whom have college degrees, left the state over the past three years is that they can’t find jobs here. Federal budget sequestration has crimped job creation in Northern Virginia, the commonwealth’s economic engine. Moret suggested that it might be prudent to focus resources on graduating students from disciplines for which there is a demonstrated shortage.

Making a similar point, John L. “Dubby” Wynne, former CEO of Landmark Communications in Norfolk, noted that Virginia has a 4.3 million-person workforce and has an acute shortage of employees with information technology skills. Yet Virginia’s higher ed system produces only 4,000 four-year degrees, two-year degrees, and certification credentials in computer science per year.

The other big sticking point was the goal of investing more in Virginia universities’ research capabilities. It is a truism that in a technology-driven economy, research universities are engines of economic growth. Look no further than Stanford, Berkeley and Silicon Valley or Harvard, MIT and Boston. But given the size of its economy and the high regard of its public universities, Virginia punches below its weight.

Virginia’s six research universities generate about $1.4 billion in research annually, said Angel Cabrera, president of George Mason University. That’s less than the University of Michigan alone. Virginia is attracting less than its fair share of federal research dollars. If the commonwealth wants to be a player in research, he said, “you have to make investments to get it.”

Cabrera gave examples of the kind of economic benefits that accrue from R&D activity. Annup Ghosh, founder of Invincea, which describes itself as a next-generation anti-virus company, sold the company earlier this year for $120 million. Ceres Nanosciences, which developed a highly accurate diagnostic test for Lyme disease, has raised millions of dollars in growth capital. Both came out of GMU.

However, GMU is embedded in a dense innovation ecosystem. Ghosh, for instance, had worked at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funded his research at GMU. He tapped the Center for Innovative Technology for funding, and he found other early-stage funding in Northern Virginia. Thanks to the region’s ties to the defense and intelligence agencies, entrepreneurs also can draw upon world-class technical and executive talent in cyber-security.

Other regions in Virginia don’t have such well-developed innovation ecosystems. With an eye to building innovation assets in Hampton Roads, Wynne conducted a gap analysis comparing Hampton Roads capabilities with best practices. The regional fell woefully short. The NASA Langley research facility and the Thomas Jefferson Lab conduct about $1 billion in research between them, but a scientist seeking to commercialize a technology would find few resources to help him, he said. Wynne said he is working on building a business accelerator and developing a source of seed funding.

Bacon’s bottom line: While strong colleges and universities are essential components of technology-driven economic development, they are not sufficient in and of themselves. It is possible for the commonwealth to invest too much in higher-ed, getting ahead of the demand for graduates and the ability to commercialize R&D. Investment in higher-ed has to be carefully calibrated with demand for particular skills and the slow and painstaking development of innovation ecosystems around research universities. If state leaders are not careful, they could wind up subsidizing at great expense the workforce of other states and building research capabilities that generate little economic spin-off.

They Came, They Chanted, They Left

White supremacist losers roll into town for a photo-op. Photo credit: NBC29

The white nationalists were back in Charlottesville over the weekend, bearing torches and rallying around the draped statue of Robert E. Lee. Arriving in a tour bus, about 40 to 50 supremacists bore torches and chanted, “We’ll be back.” After about ten minutes, they boarded their bus and left.

Hopefully, they won’t be back. The best way to ensure that they won’t return is to ignore them. The rally was staged purely for the benefit of the media. Naturally, the media obliged. Among other outlets, the Washington Post and the New York Times assigned reporters to cover the rally. Local TV was there as well. So, the white nationalists got some of what they wanted: attention.

But this time, there were no counter-protesters (at least not enough to warrant mention in the Daily Progress, whose account I have follow here). There was no violence or even a threat of violence, so there was no spectacle, which means there was no video footage worth broadcasting on the national networks. Controversy and publicity are the oxygen that keep the fires of extremism burning.

What if Richard Spencer and his white supremacist buddies threw a rally and nobody came? I doubt they would ever return.

Meanwhile, reports the Daily Progress:

At UVa, about 30 students and faculty stood outside UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan’s residence, Carr’s Hill, and chanted “blood is on your hands” and “all black lives matter.” At the bicentennial celebration on Friday, three students were arrested on trespassing charges after allegedly holding a sign that read “200 years of white supremacy” in front of a screen.

There are ample grounds for criticizing Sullivan’s tenure as university president, but to say that “blood is on her hands” is patently absurd. And while it is true that UVa, like almost every other university in the country, is tainted by racism in its history, it empties the words of any meaning to associate the institution with “white supremacy” today.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to ignore these puerile fools. Unfortunately, unlike the white supremacists, Black Lives Matter protesters won’t board a bus and leave the state. And unlike the white supremacists, whose ideology is almost universally reviled, large swaths of the population — especially in  university communities — are in sympathy with BLM assertions that the United States and its institutions are irredeemably racist. And unlike Richard Spencer and his excoriated band of losers, Black Lives Matter presents demands that university administrations take very seriously indeed.

The Left Consumes Its Own

Conservative scholars and agitators aren’t the only people getting shouted down at college campuses anymore.

Claire Gastanaga is an old-school liberal who, from my observation, reliably supports the old-school liberal position on everything from women’s rights to illegal immigration. But, as an old-school liberal, she also respects the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, such as, oh, to pick a wild and crazy example, the right to freedom of speech. Indeed, as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, she visited her alma mater, the College of William & Mary last week, to speak about freedom of speech.

But she didn’t get to say very much. A multiracial group of students affiliated with Black Lives Matter, enraged that the ACLU had defended the right of white nationalists to hold the August rally in Charlottesville, shouted her down.

According to W&M’s student paper, The Flat Hat:

Protesters took over the stage within five minutes of Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia Claire Guthrie Gastañaga’s entrance. Signs in hand, the protesters shouted chants such as “liberalism is white supremacy” and “the revolution will not uphold the constitution.”

In the statement, BLM criticized the ACLU’s approach to white supremacy in regard to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, suggesting that the organization provides an unnecessary platform for white supremacists.

“When is the free speech of the oppressed protected?” a BLM group representative asked. “We know from personal experience that rights granted to wealthy, white, cis, male, straight bodies do not trickle down to marginalized groups. We face greater barriers and consequences for speaking.”

After reading the statement aloud, the group’s representative took her place back in line, and the protesters continued to chant.

At one point, Gastanaga asked the students: “Is conversation not possible?”

The chanting continued. Thirty minutes into the event, the sponsors canceled the event. Students interested in talking to Gastanaga clustered around her to talk. But the protesters surrounded them and drowned out their conversation by chanting with increased volume. The students then dispersed.

The College’s BLM chapter took credit on its Facebook page through a livestream of the event, as well as a written post: “Tonight, we shut down an event at William & Mary where Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, was speaking. In contrast to the ACLU, we want to reaffirm our position of zero tolerance for white supremacy no matter what form it decides to masquerade in.”

After the incident, W&M President Taylor Reveley issued the following statement:

William & Mary has a powerful commitment to the free play of ideas. We have a campus where respectful dialogue, especially in disagreement, is encouraged so that we can listen and learn from views that differ from our own, so that we can freely express our own views, and so that debate can occur. Unfortunately, that type of exchange was unable to take place Wednesday night when an event to discuss a very important matter – the meaning of the First Amendment — could not be held as planned. …

Silencing certain voices in order to advance the cause of others is not acceptable in our community. This stifles debate and prevents those who’ve come to hear a speaker, our students in particular, from asking questions, often  hard questions, and from engaging in debate where the strength of ideas, not the power of shouting, is the currency. William & Mary must be a campus that welcomes difficult conversations, honest debate and civil dialogue

Nice to know that Revely supports free speech. The question is this: What is he willing to do to uphold it? Not much, apparently. The Flat Hat makes no mention of any discipline or sanction against the protesters.

There is a back story to this event, which I will allude to briefly but hope others take the time to research more deeply. Reveley met with student representatives of Black Lives Matter on March 29 for “ongoing conversations about race at William & Mary.” In an April 4 statement following that meeting, he said:

Many items on their list [of demands] are consistent with the recommendations that came last spring from our Task Force on Race and Race Relations. And many have already produced results or are in the planning state.

While we have made progress, there remains much to be done. Racial discrimination at William & Mary is flatly unacceptable. We all have a role to play to ensure that our university is a place where everyone is welcome and respected and where we can and do learn from one another.

On April 19, William & Mary announced plans to commit $1 million to a more diverse faculty, rename two residence halls after African-Americans, and hire a consultant to strengthen diversity in hiring, training and assessment of campus culture. Future priorities include creating a vice president of diversity and inclusion, and investing $35 million to increase diversity among faculty and senior administrators.

Bacon’s bottom line: This will not end well for Revely. None of these developments made much news at the time, and no one outside the university would have known about them had not Black Lives Matter partisans, after demanding respect for their own views, undertaken to deprive others of the right to express theirs. This is a new phenomena for Virginia campuses, and Revely had better get hold of the situation or he will risk a severe backlash. For Virginia’s higher-ed community, which is lobbying for major concessions from the General Assembly, the timing couldn’t be worse. I cannot imagine Republican legislators responding positively to haughty BLM demands and W&M promises to divert $35 million in funds to increase diversity.

A couple of predictions: The demands of Black Live Matters and their ideological cohorts are limitless. No matter what the W&M administration does to placate them, it will never be enough. BLM will always make more demands. The reason is simple: Their demands are largely impossible to fulfill. There is a limited pipeline of African-Americans getting Ph.D.s, and every college in the country is vying for these candidates. Likewise, there is a limited supply of minority high school graduates qualified to attend an elite institution like W&M, and every other elite institution — mostly private schools with lots more money to throw around — are competing to recruit them. Finally, the actions of Black Lives Matter are so militant and offensive, they create the very atmosphere of super-charged racial sensitivity that makes every racial interaction a potentially stressful event and feeds their own feelings of alienation. This cannot possibly contribute to an atmosphere of racial amity.

Emboldened by the administration’s weak response, campus radicals — and the BLM movement at W&M includes many whites — are out of control. I predict that we’ll see more of this kind of behavior. The situation will get worse before it gets better.

Club Ed Update: Best Colleges for Food

Virginia Tech dining hall

A website,, ranks colleges by the quality of their food. The winner in the “2018 Best College Food in America” survey declared the University of California-Los Angeles the winner and Virginia Tech the runner-up — both ahead of the Culinary Institute of America!

The calculation was based on two data points: student opinions of the quality of campus food, as self-reported by Niche users (85% of the weight), and the average cost of a meal plan, as reported by the college (15% of the weight).

James Madison University ranked 10th nationally in the survey. Liberty University logged 29th.

Making the Case for More Higher Ed Investment

Smithfield, the world’s largest producer of pork products, may do business in 41 countries, but its headquarters are located in Smithfield, Va., and the company recruits heavily from Virginia colleges and universities. “We need accountants, engineers, doctors, and lawyers,” says Dennis Treacy, the former chief sustainability officer who now runs the company foundation. Meanwhile, the company’s factories are so automated these days that they use computer-controlled equipment to cut bacon strips. In addition to headquarters professionals, he says, “We need people with computer skills.”

Dennis Treacy

Treacy also serves as rector of Virginia Tech, his alma mater, and as chairman of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. He fervently believes that the prosperity of Virginia businesses and their employees requires a strong system of higher education. Virginia’s colleges and universities provide a pipeline of talent that enables companies to compete in a global marketplace. They equip Virginians with the skills needed to find high-paying jobs. And their research creates new technology that spins off entrepreneurial startup companies.

Oh, Treacy also serves on the board of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, the lobbying arm of the higher-ed sector and its industry allies. Accordingly, he is stumping for the GROWTH4VA campaign to win state support for higher ed. He outlined the core priorities in an op-ed published Sunday with co-author G. Gilmer Minor III, former chairman of Owens & Minor, and he made time for Bacon’s Rebellion Monday to delve into the details.

GROWTH4VA’s core priorities are to:

  • Make Virginia the top state for talent;
  • Make Virginia known as the home of innovators and entrepreneurs;
  • Prepare Virginians for great jobs and great lives; and
  • Provide affordable access for all Virginians.

Top state for talent. The GROWTH4VA platform calls for “reform-based investments” that will keep Virginia on track for meeting the goal of the 2011 Top Jobs Act: conferring 100,000 more degrees and certificates by 2025 than had been projected before 2011, and making sure those degrees are concentrated in STEM-H fields of science, technology, engineering, math and healthcare. GROWTH4VA also backs the goal articulated by the state’s plan for higher education to make Virginia the “best educated state” by 2030.

To achieve those goals, GROWTH4VA will promote business/higher-ed partnerships that align training programs with job opportunities, close skills gaps hampering business and job growth, attract top talent to Virginia, and provide enhanced training for vets and adults.

Treacy cited Governor Terry McAuliffe’s observation that some 50,000 information technology jobs in Virginia are going unfilled. Higher-ed and industry need to work together to meet that need, he says. He doesn’t put the entire onus on higher-ed to solve the problem, though. Virginia businesses need to step up, he says, by creating more internships, apprenticeships and other opportunities for students to gain “real world experience.”

I asked Treacy if making Virginia the best educated state in the country was a useful goal. What good does it do for students to earn degrees that Virginia labor markets can’t absorb? Could pumping out too many bachelor’s degree contribute to the problem of “mal-employment”? I cited research by Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) president Stephen Moret that found that 45% of recent college graduates nationally are working in jobs that don’t require college-level skills. Could Virginia, I asked, be over-investing in higher education? Treacy’s response to the mal-investment issue: “We haven’t gotten into that yet.”

Innovators and entrepreneurs. The GROWTH4VA platform urges “investments” — presumably backed by state tax dollars — that will increase Virginia’s share of federal and private research grants. The group also wants to encourage industry-university collaboration that commercializes new discoveries locally through business startups.

The assumption here is that increased university research will spur creation of local enterprises and jobs. However, the process of translating research into jobs is highly uneven around the country. Top research universities are part of innovation ecosystems that involve angel investors, venture capitalists, industry clusters, executives with entrepreneurial skill sets, and large labor pools. Without those other elements, university research does little to stimulate the local economy. A problem in Virginia, I suggested to Treacy, is that Virginia’s two major research universities, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, are located in two of the state’s smaller metropolitan areas whose size handicaps them in building innovation ecosystems.

Tracey acknowledged the mismatch. Speaking as rector of Virginia Tech, he said, “Blacksburg is a beautiful place to be. But we understand the need to get to the urban centers.” He noted that Tech is expanding its degree programs in Northern Virginia, and it is partnering with Carilion Clinic to build a medical research hub in Roanoke. He also cited UVa’s research partnership with Inova Health System in Inova’s Center for Personalized Health in Fairfax.

Great jobs and great lives. One of Virginia’s premier higher-ed achievements is graduating the second highest percentage of students within six years of any state in the country. GROWTH4VA calls for going one step further and helping students into the marketplace. Virginia, says its platform, should focus on degrees and credentials that “lead to good jobs and higher earnings.” And the commonwealth should ease the transition through better guidance counseling, and by creating more internships and other workplace pipeline programs and online study options.

Likewise, GROWTH4VA advocates more transparency in the college-search process, empowering students and parents as consumers by providing data on job placement success, graduates’ earnings, internship and work opportunities, graduation rates, net four-year cost, and student loan debt levels.

Affordable access. Without specifying where the money comes from, the GROWTH4VA platform champions increased financial aid to “enhance social mobility” for the poor, relieve the middle-class tuition squeeze, and reduce student loan debt. But Treacy minces no words: “We are asking the General Assembly to step up.”

“Our schools are at risk of pricing themselves out of the market,” he says. “We need to get the General Assembly to normalize funding.” Rather than ask for across-the-board increases in state support, GROWTH4VA recommends “incentive” funding that restores state support to institutions that restrain their tuition increases, and it advocates creating a “higher education reserve fund” — analogous to the state’s water quality fund that accumulates money when the state runs a budget surplus — to preserve a stable flow of state dollars to colleges and universities. Another idea is to tie state funding to educational and economic outcomes in exchange for giving universities more managerial flexibility.

One thing missing from the affordable-access platform: asking colleges and universities to re-think how they deliver higher education. No reforming the faculty tenure system, no pruning the ranks of administrators, no questioning the quest for prestigious faculty members who pad the payroll but do little teaching. No rethinking of athletic programs and sky-high student fees, and no halting the push for ever more luxurious food and lodging programs.

Speaking again as Virginia Tech’s rector, Treacy responded that board of visitor meetings are consumed by “raging debate” over tuition hikes. The board is acutely aware of the affordability issues. But, he adds, tuition must be weighed against other priorities. “If we hold the tuition down for students, do we short-change the university in other ways?”

Hate to Pop Your Bubble, Virginia, But…

It’s an article of faith, repeatedly endlessly by leaders in Virginia’s higher-ed establishment, that Virginia has one of the best systems of public education in the country, if not the best. There is some justification for the high esteem in which Virginia institutions hold themselves. W. Taylor Revely IV, president of Longwood University, cites US News & World-Report rankings in an op-ed published today (see “Dear Virginia, Higher-Ed Promotes Economic Development“) to make the case that collectively speaking Virginia’s colleges are the best.

But US News & World-Report is not the only group publishing college rankings. Using a different methodology, The Wall Street Journal rolled out its own “U.S. College Rankings” today. The results are a real come-down. My alma mater, the University of Virginia, ranks 26th nationally under the U.S. News approach. By the WSJ‘s reckoning, it ranks 50th! The College of William & Mary gets demoted from 32nd to 82nd, Virginia Tech from 69th to 134th, Virginia Commonwealth University from 171st to 458th, and George Mason from 140th to 260th. Yikes!

I’m not suggesting that the WSJ methodology is more valid than U.S. News‘. As the WSJ notes on methodology make clear, rankings depend upon what you measure, and what weights you assign to those measures. Among other factors, the WSJ measures racial, ethnic and financial diversity. That certainly is a factor to consider in evaluating an institution from a social justice perspective, but does it reflect the quality of instruction? Debatable.

None of the rankings incorporate the measure that I think is most important — cognitive value added, or gains in a student’s ability to read, write, and speak critically, analytically and clearly. We don’t have the capacity to measure that now, so from personal perspective I’m not sure how useful any rankings are.

Speaking of critical, analytical thinking, Virginia’s business, civic and political leaders need to engage in some. Instead of repeating the conventional wisdom, we need to ask dispassionately, are our public colleges and universities as great as we think they are? If they are, they arguably merit greater state financial support with fewer strings attached. If they aren’t — if the higher-ed model isn’t working as well as we’d like in Virginia — perhaps the system cries out for restructuring and reform. As we gear up for another big debate about the state’s role in higher education, we cannot duck these issues.

Update: The original post was based upon last year’s WSJ rankings. I have updated the chart and the text to reflect the 2018 rankings. Hat tip: LocalGovGuy.

Reinventing Higher Education with What? With Spods!

Norfolk State Provost Stacey F. Jones. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot.

When Eddie Moore was appointed interim president of Norfolk State University in 2013, the historically black university was in crisis. The school had been warned that its accreditation status was at risk, it was losing students and it was hemorrhaging tuition revenue. The situation was desperate.

“We had a forced reset,” Moore told Bacon’s Rebellion last week. Business-as-usual palliatives would not save the university. In a bid to differentiate itself in a highly competitive educational marketplace, however, NSU just might have devised the most revolutionary idea to hit Virginia higher education since Thomas Jefferson created his community of scholars and students in Charlottesville in 1819.

NSU is reorganizing itself around learning-teaching-research units it calls Spods: interdisciplinary communities of interest that include faculty, students, alumni, and outside companies or agencies. Spods are similar to interdisciplinary “institutes” or “centers” seen on other college campuses, but they are not bound by the same academic regulations or dependent upon outside benefactions with strings attached. They bubble up from faculty and students.

“Spods morph into what the members make it,” explained NSU Provost Stacey F. Jones, who presented the concept to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) board when it visited NSU for its monthly meeting last week.

The kernel of the idea arose from interest at NSU in creating “learning communities” in dormitories in which students shared common interests. While not typical, themed dormitories are found at other colleges and universities. But NSU took the idea to a new level when it hired Jones, a Ph.D. with a mathematics and engineering background and extensive experience in both private industry and the academic world. Jones had outlined the Spods concept at a conference in Las Vegas, and the NSU Spartans gave her the opportunity to implement it.

Typically in the academic world, collaborative research occurs between faculty members and, occasionally, graduate students. The idea behind Spods, which is short-hand for Spartan Pods, is to create interdisciplinary communities of interest that extend roots into the undergraduate student body and shoots into the world beyond the campus. Jones sees them as “family-like units” that engage students on a deeper level that traditional college departments do not.

Driven by the passion of a few individuals, Spods can start small and grow organically if they strike a chord with others. While NSU will confer recognition, classroom space, and perhaps even provide funding from its foundation, the university will not encumber Spods with rules and regulations.

NSU is in the early stage of implementation. It has identified several prospective Spods, but they are still conceptual. None are expected to begin functioning until the next school year. Spods in the making include:

  • Cyber-psychology. Many institutions are addressing cyber-security issues, but mainly as an IT problem. The cyber-psychology Spod will focus on the psychology and motives of the bad guys, “modeling and analyzing adversarial decision-making to predict cyber-attack strategies.”
  • Bio-fuels. This Spod will examine the efficient and eco-friendly production of bio-fuels. It might take on an inter-disciplinary cast by incorporating political and public-policy perspectives.
  • Ancestry. This Spod will approach the study of ancestry through DNA analysis, history and genealogy, and might incorporate a series of written works and video documentaries.

To be recognized by the university, a budding Spod must find alumni partners and an outside partner, such as a government agency. The way Moore sees it, Spods will engage graduates far more deeply and productively with the university than through traditional alumni activities. Ideally, alumni and agency/corporate partners serve as conduits for NSU students entering the workforce. And ideally, Spods will provide a reason for graduating students who stay in the field to stay actively involved with the university. Over time, successful Spods will put NSU at the center of webs of relationships reaching around the country and even the world.

The university will provide Spods no dedicated staff. Spods will administer themselves. “The viability of the Spod depends upon its members,” Jones says. But she is confident that the bottom-up approach will succeed. Although it will take time, she adds, “the goal is to have everyone [at NSU] be a member of a Spod eventually.”

Bacon’s bottom line: There is no way to know if this radical idea will succeed until NSU tries it. But I think that Spods potentially could transform higher education. They require little up-front money or generous benefactors, neither of which NSU has in abundance. Instead, boot-strapping Spods will rely upon the passion, ingenuity and creativity of its participants. Some will succeed, evolving into centers of excellence; others will wither away in a Darwinian survival of the fittest. Spods will empower the knowledge creators — faculty and students — not the administrators. Unencumbered by regulations, nimble, entrepreneurial Spods will be able to morph quickly in response to changing conditions. I anticipate a frenzy of experimentation and innovation.

As the idea matures and Spods proliferate, NSU will offer a value proposition to students unmatched by any other university in the country. While wealthy institutions throw vast sums at creating “enrichment” programs for students, NSU will furnish amazing educational enhancements at very little cost. If the concept succeeds, it could become the greatest legacy of Eddie Moore, who recently announced his attention his intention to step down as NSU president. It could make an academic superstar of Stacey Jones. And it could provide a road map for less well-to-do colleges and universities to revitalize themselves.