Tag Archives: University of Virginia

When Virginia Universities Fund their Own Research, Where Does the Money Come From?

In the previous blog post, Reed Fawell makes the argument that America’s research universities are subsidizing their R&D programs to the tune of some $18 billion a year. The subsidies, which are especially high among public universities, contribute significantly to cost pressures that drive up undergraduate tuition. There is significant variability among universities and higher-ed systems in the fifty states, however. Does the national trend that Reed describes apply to Virginia?

Examine the table below. It breaks down sources of 2016 R&D spending for Virginia’s six leading research universities as well as the total for all U.S. universities. The column headed “institution” covers funding from university sources — tuition, state support, endowments, and the like. All told, Virginia’s six research universities contributed $478 million toward $1.39 billion in R&D. 

How does that contribution compare to the national average for all universities? The following table tells the tale.

The average “institution” contribution for all U.S. universities is 25% of the total raised for research. Virginia Tech, George Mason University, the College of William & Mary (primarily the Virginia Institute of Marine Science), and Old Dominion University all exceeded the national average by wide margins. The University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University fell short of the national average by small margins. In other words, Reed’s critique does apply to Virginia higher-ed institutions.

Furthermore, his argument that research funded by the universities themselves has increased in recent years applies to Virginia institutions as well. This table compares research funding from all sources (“total”) to funding paid with university resources in 2010 and 2016, a period which saw a surge in institutional funding nationally.

The raw numbers aren’t as meaningful as the change in the numbers. In the following table we see the increases in total funding and institutional funding, both in absolute dollars and expressed as a percentage.

Here the variability between individual institutions is evident. Between 2010 and 2016, ODU slashed its institutional support for R&D by $33 million, or 53%. Not surprisingly, total R&D funding declined by a similar amount, $27 million. William & Mary increased its institutional support modestly, by $1.2 million, or $6.3%, and its total R&D funding increase was likewise modest.

By contrast, Virginia Tech pumped $123 million additional institutional dollars into its research program in just four years, while UVa upped its ante by $69 million, VCU by $27 million, and GMU by $24 million.

Unfortunately, the National Science Foundation doesn’t tell us where these so-called “institution” dollars come from. Tuition increases? State aid? Gifts and endowment? Some other source entirely? We don’t know. If the institutional dollars came from gifts and endowments, students and taxpayers have little cause to complain. If the dollars came from state support or undergraduate tuition, it’s a very different story. But the NSF data is not granular enough to allow us to confirm Reed’s hypothesis — that undergraduate tuition is subsidizing research — for specific universities.

To do that, we need to dig deeper. While the universities do publish a lot more data than the NSF does, the data does not necessarily answer the questions we are asking. I’ll poke around and see what I can come up with.

Quashing Offensive Memes at UVa


On Jan. 19, Patrick Hogan, the chief operating officer of the University of Virginia, sent out an email community advisory to students, faculty, and staff asking people witnessing “suspicious activity” such as posting “offensive flyers and memes” to please call 911.

“The safety and wellbeing of every member of the University community remains our top priority, and we ask for your assistance in remaining vigilant of your surroundings,” said Hogan.

That communiqué struck Hans von Spasovsky, a scholar with the Heritage Foundation, as an egregious affront to free speech. Here’s how he responded in an article published by the Foundation’s Daily Signal:

Apparently, in Hogan’s mind, saying something “offensive” is the same as committing a heinous criminal act. How do we know that? Because his email tells students to call 911 if they see someone “posting offensive flyers or other material.”

No, really. Posting such material violates the university’s “posting and chalking” policy and is included in Hogan’s definition of “suspicious activity.”

Hogan was particularly concerned over any “offensive” material that might be distributed at “buildings and centers for under-represented groups, particularly Women’s Studies.”

In other words, if you decide to exercise your First Amendment right to speak at UVA by, perhaps, calling the “Women’s Study” program a faux social science curriculum, or by pointing out that its graduates may have a very tough time finding a job in which they can actually support themselves, then law enforcement officers will be called to come after you—a total abuse of the 911 emergency response system.

This is apparently UVA’s version of the “Thought Police” from George Orwell’s “1984.”

Spasovsky makes a searing indictment. Is it fair? Here is the full text of what Hogan wrote:

The University of Virginia is aware of reports of solicitations by national organizations to encourage distribution of offensive flyers and memes at colleges and universities across the country during the upcoming weekend. The reports indicate that the organizations are specifically interested in buildings and centers for under-represented groups, particularly Women’s Studies. We are not aware of any specific threats to the University of Virginia and its facilities. We still believe it is prudent to make members of the University community aware of this possible activity.

If you witness individuals engaged in suspicious activity, including posting offensive flyers or other material in violation of the University’s Policy on Exterior Posting and Chalking, please call 911. The University Police Department and the Ambassadors are aware of this information and will be closely monitoring activities on and near Grounds. We will be maintaining an enhanced security environment across Grounds this weekend.

The safety and wellbeing of every member of the University community remains our top priority, and we ask for your assistance in remaining vigilant of your surroundings.

Oddly, it’s not clear from Hogan’s advisory who these outside groups are or how their flyers might prove offensive — although his epistle implies that “women’s studies” might be targeted. He’s not aware of any specific “threats” to the university, but the rumored activities are alarming enough that university police have been notified and the administration will maintain an “enhanced security environment.”

The advisory is so vague that it’s hard to make heads or tails of it. While Spasovsky might be jumping to conclusions, it is easy to see how he made the inferences that he did. Reading between the lines of Hogan’s email, it sounds like feminist groups on campus were having fainting spells at the prospect of someone posting material — offensive “memes” — that assaulted their snowflake sensitivities. We do not know that for a fact. However, given the tenor of campus politics these days, it is a not unreasonable supposition.

Adding plausibility to Spasovsky’s spin on the memo, Hogan’s words must be interpreted through a filter of modern-day academia-speak. The document referred to women’s studies as an “under-represented group.” Only in an academic culture steeped in the culture of victimization could an institution where women comprise 55% of the student body possibly refer to them as an “under-represented” group.

When asking for UVa spokesman Anthony de Bruyn for a copy of Hogan’s advisory, I asked if the university had a response to Spasovsky’s column. De Bruyn did not respond. It’s all very mysterious.

For the record, conservatives on campus can play the victimization game, too. In December I wrote how the UVa Student Council had denied the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a conservative student group, recognition as an official student organization. YAF called foul. UVa responded that the non-discrimination policy had been applied in error and that the student council would reconsider. De Bruyn informed me today that the YAF had been approved as a CIO (contracted independent organization) last week.

A College Ranking to Virginia’s Liking

There are plenty of people in the college rating game these games, from the venerable US News & World-Report to Forbes magazine to the Wall Street Journal. Results vary depending on the criteria selected and the weight assigned to those criteria, both of which entail decisions and value judgments subject to human bias. But what if Artificial Intelligence was used to compile the rankings?

That’s what MetaMetrics, a Durham, N.C.-based company specializing in educational metrics, has tried to do. MetaMetrics research engineer Steve Lattanzio explains:

Was it possible to have a computer algorithm take in a bunch of raw data and, through a sufficiently black-box approach, remove decision points that allow ratings to become subjective? … Could an artificial intelligence discover a latent dimension hidden behind all the noise that was driving data points such as SAT scores, admission rates, earnings, loan repayment rates, and a thousand other things, instead of combining just a few of them in a subjective fashion?

The company drew upon the College Scoreboard, an exhaustive U.S. Department of Education database on colleges, students, and student loans. Lattanzio continues:

We use neural networks to perform “representational learning” through the use of what is called a stacked autoencoder. I’ll skip over the technical details, but the concept behind representational learning is to take a bunch of information that is represented in a lot of variables, or dimensions, and represent as much of the original information as possible with a lot fewer dimensions. In a stacked neural network autoencoder, data entering into the network is squashed down into fewer and fewer dimensions on one side and squeezed through a bottleneck. On the other side of the network, that squashed information is unpacked in an attempt to reconstruct the original data. …  the AI isn’t figuring out which subset of variables it wants to keep and which it wants to discard; it is figuring out how to express as much of the original data as possible in brand new meta-variables that it is concocting by combining the original data in creative ways. …

It turns out that we were able to compress all of the information down to just two dimensions, and the significance of those two dimensions was immediately clear.

One dimension has encoded a latent dimension that is related to things such as the size of the school and whether it is public or private (in fact, the algorithm decided there should be a rift mostly separating larger public institutions from smaller schools). The other dimension is a strong candidate for overall quality of a school and is correlated with all of the standard indicators of quality. It seems as if the algorithm learned that for higher education, if you must break it down into two things, [the data] is best broken down into two dimensions that can loosely be described as quantity and quality.

Got that? Good. So, here are the results for the top 20 colleges:

  1. Duke University
  2. Stanford University
  3. Vanderbilt University
  4. Cornell University
  5. Brown University
  6. Emory University
  7. University of Virginia
  8. University of Chicago
  9. Boston College
  10. University of Notre Dame
  11. College of William & Mary
  12. University of Southern California
  13. Wesleyan University
  14. Yale University
  15. Massachusetts of Technology
  16. Northwestern University
  17. Bucknell University
  18. University of Pennsylvania
  19. Santa Clara University
  20. Carnegie Mellon University

What? No Harvard or Princeton? Correct. The AI does not take into account intangible factors such as prestige. By the AI’s reckoning, it appears, those institutions are over-rated.

Virginia higher-ed officials looking for bragging rights can surely find them with this methodology — at least if they don’t dig too deep. UVa ranks 7th in the country and W&M ranks 11th. They are two of only three public universities on the list. The University of Richmond, described as a “hidden ivy,” logged in at 32nd, while Washington & Lee University scored 63. As comedian Larry David might say, that’s pretty, pretty impressive.

Virginia’s non-elite public universities scored fair to middling, according to the AI’s way of thinking. Out of 1,313 institutions nationally:

James Madison University — 146
Virginia Tech — 157
Virginia Military Institute — 199
George Mason University — 316
Radford University — 482
Longwood University — 495
Virginia Commonwealth University — 504
Old Dominion University — 951
Norfolk State University — 1,164
Virginia State University — 1,213

I could find no mention of Mary Washington University or the University of Virginia-Wise.

MetaMetrics provides plenty of caveats, which you can read here. The ranking “is not perfect and the rankings should not be viewed as infallible,” writes Lattanzio. “But when viewed among other college rankings, its validity is undeniable. It’s not merely a measure of prestige, and it addresses most of the concerns of critics of college rankings, while undoubtedly raising some new ones.”

I do fine one thing very curious. The company is located in Durham, N.C., home of Duke University. Four of the company’s top 11 senior executives have Duke affiliations — as does Lattanzio himself. Who ranks as the No. 1 university in the country? Duke, of course. Pure coincidence? Let’s just say, when Duke plays the University of North Carolina in basketball, you can probably find the AI in the stands rooting for the Blue Devils.

(Hat tip: Mary Helen Willett)

Virginia Falling Behind in R&D

Declining research funding in Virginia, 2010 to 2015. Blue bars=Virginia, gray=national. Source: TECconomy Partners LLC

Virginia universities are slowly gaining ground compared to their peers in R&D, but Virginia businesses are falling behind. Academia and industry need to cultivate closer ties, says strategic consultant Mitch Horowitz.

As a principal of TEConomy Partners LLC, a Bethesda, Md.-based research firm specializing in technology-driven economy development, Mitch Horowitz has had the opportunity to view a lot of technology-leading metropolitan regions close up. And Northern Virginia stands out… but not in a good way.

“I cannot recall a state that has a great technology hub like Northern Virginia that doesn’t have many great research institutes growing up around them,” said Horowitz while briefing the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia yesterday on the challenges in Virginia of linking university and industry R&D to stimulate new business formation and create jobs.

Despite strengths such as a highly educated workforce and access to venture capital, Virginia universities and companies have done a poor job of translating R&D into new business and jobs, said Horowitz.

All told universities, corporations and federal labs in Virginia conducted $10.5 billion in research funding in 2015, ranking it 13th highest in the country. But Virginia’s economy is larger than that of most states, so research as a percentage of GDP ranks the state only 21st nationally in R&D intensity. Even more worrisome, Virginia is losing ground. While research funding grew nationally between 2010 and 2015, it shrank in Virginia. Worst hit was “federal intramural” funding (federal labs). University R&D actually grew faster than the national average, but industry R&D declined 3.6% in Virginia while it surged 21% nationally.

“Decline in industry research and development in Virginia [is] not simply a reflection of strong dependency on federal R&D contracts, but weakness in company funding of R&D leading to the commercialization of new products and process,” stated Horowitz’s PowerPoint presentation.

A root problem is the lack of alignment between university strengths and industry strengths, which reflects the comparatively weak ties between Virginia universities and corporations, Horowitz explained. When Virginia universities do invent something that can be commercialized, Virginia companies typically are not the ones to benefit. Of 137 technology licenses issued by Virginia universities in Fiscal 2017, said Horowitz, 108 went to out-of-state companies.

While Horowitz did not specifically address the geographic imbalance between the location of Virginia’s leading research universities and its technology companies, his observations were entirely consistent with the observation on this blog that Virginia’s leading tech clusters are located in Northern Virginia while its leading research universities are located downstate. George Mason University, the sole public research university based in Northern Virginia, only recently passed the $100 million mark in R&D. The state’s R&D powerhouses, Virginia Tech ($504 million in 2015), the University of Virginia ($373 million), and Virginia Commonwealth University ($219 million) are located in Blacksburg/Roanoke, Charlottesville and Richmond respectively. However, it is worth noting that the rise of the promising Center for Personalized Medicine in Fairfax County under the aegis of the Inova health care system is developing institutional ties with the University of Virginia as well as with GMU and other institutions.

The good news from an economic development perspective, said Horowitz is that Virginia’s research universities have narrowed the gap with their national peers in recent years. The bad news is that all that effort is not translating into much economic activity beyond the research itself.

To stimulate local economic growth, says Horowitz, there needs to be a “line of sight,” or alignment between university research strengths and industry expertise. His analysis shows four broad areas where this alignment exists: life sciences; networking, communications, and data analysis; cyber and cyber-physical security; and system of systems engineering solutions.

“You can’t be a winner in every technology area,” says Horowitz. Virginia needs to build on fields in which it enjoys a competitive advantage.

To exploit these advantages, universities and corporations need to bridge the disconnect. Faculty researchers are scientists. While they are expert in the science, they cannot be expected to be experts in potential commercial applications. They need to partner with business. “We need our universities to build relationships with industry,” Horowitz says.

One small step lawmakers have made to bridge the gap is to create the Virginia Research Investment Fund, which dispenses $8 million a year to leverage other research dollars for projects showing a strong potential to create new enterprises and jobs. But the funding is small potatoes compared to the R&D commitment made by leading technology states. Massachusetts is investing $1 billion of public dollars to build its life-sciences sector. Texas has invested multimillions in its innovation ecosystems.

SCHEV board member Tom Slater called Horowitz’s report a “wake up call that’s desperately needed.”

“It’s a call to action,” said Gene Lockhart, another SCHEV board member. “I think there’s a lot of kidding ourselves, a lot of complacency.”

“This kind of effort lifts all boats,” said SCHEV Chair Heywood Fralin. But, he opined, “none of this is free.”

UVa Invests $75 Million in Fund to Recruit Profs


The University of Virginia is tapping its Strategic Investment Fund to create the Bicentennial Professors Fund, a $75 million plan to support about 70 endowed professorships, reports the Daily Progress.

The College of Arts & Sciences at UVa currently has 52 endowed professorships. Endowed chairs are used primarily to supplement professors’ salaries, recruit graduate students, and underwrite laboratory space. Such dedicated funding is a critical tool for recruiting star faculty and building institutional prestige at a time when UVa is competing for academic talent and elevate its standing as one of the top universities in the country.

“Endowed professorships have been a challenge to secure in numbers sufficient to reward our existing faculty and to help recruit the best new faculty,” Ian Baucom, dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, told the Daily Progress in an email.

“In my own career and in my role as dean, I’ve experienced first-hand how endowed professorships were the difference in our ability to retain or attract talented faculty members,” Baucom said. “The Bicentennial Professors Fund will help us build on our historic strengths and fuel our emerging, field-transforming research by ensuring we are highly competitive in the marketplace.”

Under the plan, the university will match half of every dollar in gifts of $1 million or more. For gifts of $3 million or more, the newspaper says, the Bicentennial Professors Fund will provide a “super match” of $2 for every $3 pledged. Thus, a $3 million gift would be matched with $2 million.

The Strategic Investment Fund was cobbled together from various reserves and special funds and handed over to the University of Virginia Investment Management Company (UVIMCO), where it can generate a higher investment return. Since February 2016, the fund has invested more than $307 million in strategic priorities such as $20 million for autism research, a research seed fund, addiction aid, infrastructure for behavioral research efforts, and an interdisciplinary research center to study cosmic origins.

Bacon’s bottom line: If the goal of the UVa administration and Board of Visitors is to attract star faculty and elevate the prestige of the university — and it is — then this is a necessary investment. The recruitment and retention of big-name faculty members is only getting more intense as other institutions throw more and more money into the academic arms race.

Let’s assume the university generates 6% to 7% annually on the $75 million in the Bicentennial Professors Fund and retains, say 3% to allow the fund to continue to grow and keep pace with inflation while withdrawing 3% to 4% to spend. That would create resources of $2 million to $3 million a year, or about $30,000 to $40,000 per endowed professorship. That should be a big help in recruiting and retaining the big names.

However, if UVa’s goal is to make the institution more affordable and accessible — a goal that is given lip service — then this is an opportunity lost. The money could have been used to build an endowment for financial aid. Or it could have been invested in re-engineering business processes to lower the university’s cost structure. For purposes of illustration, one could envision investing $75 million in HVAC systems, lighting systems, and rooftop solar and saving, to pick a reasonable number, $7.5 million a year in annual operating costs, which in turn could be used to moderate tuition increases.

Ironically, it is possible that recruiting more star faculty will have the effect of driving up costs. While UVa’s academic titans are funded in part by general tuition, they tend to teach few courses than the typical instructor and contribute little to the educational experience of the undergraduates paying the tuition.

Instead of competing with Ivy League institutions, why can’t UVa settle for becoming the best public university and providing the best undergraduate experience in the country? Those seem worthy goals, and reaching them would be an impressive achievement.

UVa responds: UVa spokesman Anthony de Bruyn responded to this post as follows:

In December of last year, the Board of Visitors established a permanent endowment of up to $300 million to support student scholarships through a combination of philanthropic support and the Strategic Investment Fund. Earnings from the Bicentennial Scholars Fund provide need- and merit-based scholarships for University undergraduate students, and also will relieve pressure on long-term tuition increases by funding need-based aid from this fund rather that from tuition revenue.

The University is also doing its part to identify cost savings across Grounds.  The University’s Organizational Excellence program has identified $60.2 million in savings since the launch of the program in 2014.  You can learn more about the program and associated initiatives here.

Bacon’s response to UVa’s response: Yes, UVa has upped its commitment to financial aid, which does make the cost of attendance more affordable than it would be otherwise for the recipients. But that doesn’t do much for the middle-class and affluent families who still pay the full freight. De Bruyn said that funding from the Strategic Investment Fund helps alleviate the pressure to raise tuition in future years. Well, we’ll see about that. I’ll believe it when I see the Board of Visitors enact a tuition increase that’s less than the inflation rate.

As for the Organizational Excellence program, it is much to be commended. Kudos on the $60 million in savings. However, I would like to see an analysis of those programs. I would ask if any of them required substantial up-front capital investments. Could the university save even more by making large capital investments in efficiency? I don’t know the answer. But those are the kinds of questions we need to be asking.

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.

UVa Board of Visitors Discusses Online Learning

Five years after the future of online learning played an important role in the drama over University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan resignation and reinstatement, the UVa Board of Trustees is making cautious moves to increase the university’s commitment to e-learning.

During a two-day board retreat, Kristen Palmer, director of online learning programs, provided an overview of how other colleges and universities are utilizing online learning — from enhancing the education of residential students to delivering education to off-campus students, reports The Daily Progress.

Still in the brainstorming phase, UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan said at Saturday’s meeting that the first step would be to research the market and determine what would and would not work for UVa. She said online curriculum support for students will be very important, as will options for nontraditional students.

“We’re willing to think outside the box,” Sullivan said. “The sweet spot is that there is so much new knowledge and people beyond college age want it.”

UVa offers more than 50 online courses, 20 certificates and five degrees, and it supports Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) — giving the university a significantly larger online presence than it had in 2012 when the Board of Visitors demanded Sullivan’s resignation. Although then-Rector Helen Dragas cited several reasons for seeking Sullivan’s departure, the issue that resonated most with the public was the absence at UVa of a coherent strategy for adapting to the online revolution. MOOCs were generating considerable publicity at the time, and the higher-ed community was divided on whether online learning would fundamentally transform learning or was a passing craze that could never effectively translate into higher education.

After Sullivan mobilized faculty and student support to win reappointment as president, online learning took a back seat compared to other UVa priorities. While individual schools did adopt the technology — the School of Continuing and Professional Studies most notably (see the video above) — UVA as an institution never made a major commitment. Now, as Sullivan prepares to retire, the Board of Visitors is delving deeper.

Many universities — Harvard, Berkeley, MIT, Penn State, Georgia Tech, the University of Michigan and Purdue, among others — have ramped up their investing in online learning. Here in Virginia, Liberty University has ridden the online-learning wave to become the largest university in the state by enrollment). Liberty’s online learning programs have been so profitable that the institution has been able to plow hundreds of millions of dollars into its endowment.

In September 2016, UVa’s Online Education Advisory Committee advanced several recommendations for bolstering online learning. According to Palmer’s presentation PowerPoint, they included:

  1. Identify leader to drive strategic digital learning efforts across
    university
  2. Fund small scale projects focused on measuring effectiveness and
    disseminating findings related to emergent learning technologies
    and digital environments.
  3. Remove barriers for those schools interested in digital learning
    with seed funding with plans for sustainability within 2-5 years
    (possible collaborative Strategic Investment Fund proposal).
  4. Create a Fellows Program by funding, hiring, and supporting
    thought leaders, subject matter experts and practitioners.
  5. Make all digital materials for the university fully accessible for all
    learners

A year later, many questions remain to be answered. Among those raised by Palmer: Who do we want UVa to be? Are there markets UVa could enter at scale? Will moving content online affect the cost of curriculum delivery? Could UVa use online courses as part of the admissions process? Could the university partner with other Virginia colleges or programs?

With discussions still in the early stages, said the Daily Progress, the board will continue to examine pros and cons of online learning. To better support students, said board member Jeffrey C. Walker, it would be advisable to talk to other schools that utilize online learning to find out what works and what doesn’t. Which classes are more proficiently taught online and which are more suited to traditional classrooms?

UVa Responds…

Marcus Martin

Two days ago, I posted an article, “How Big Is UVa’s Diversity Bureaucracy?” In it, I noted that Marcus Martin, the University of Virginia’s chief diversity officer, was paid $349,000, the highest salary of any of 50 higher-education diversity officer identified by Campus Reform. I also endeavored to describe the size and effectiveness of UVa’s diversity bureaucracy.

In response, I received this communication from UVa spokesman Anthony de Bruyn, which I reproduce in full:

I write to provide you and your readers important context and clarifications regarding your article “How Big Is UVa’s Diversity Bureaucracy?”

Marcus Martin, M.D., is a practicing physician, professor of emergency medicine and the founding chair of the School of Medicine’s Emergency Department, as well as vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at the University of Virginia.  Through his clinical activities, educating and mentoring of medical students and young physicians, he contributes to our medical and education missions. He also teaches a popular course for undergraduates. Dr. Martin is a well-published author and has served in several prominent emergency medicine leadership roles across the nation. And, he is involved in several community-based organizations in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. His compensation reflects not only his responsibilities as the University’s chief diversity officer, but also his role as a medical doctor and long-time faculty member. The characterization of him as merely a bureaucrat is pretty far off the mark.

Just last month, the National Science Foundation again awarded a $5 million grant for which Dr. Martin has been the principal investigator.  This grant, in its second renewal, seeks to boost the number of underrepresented minority students in STEM careers.  The grant involves a consortium of eight universities and colleges, the Virginia-North Carolina Alliance, in addition to the University of Virginia.  NSF renewed the grant because of its demonstrated outcomes.

Your article unfairly criticizes the work of several committees at the University that make important contributions to our living and learning environment, and implies a large number of full-time bureaucrats who do little else.  The members of these committees are students, faculty, staff and community representatives who volunteer their time and expertise over and above their academic and work commitments. The committees study important issues such as improving our recruitment and retention of faculty, staff and students from historically underrepresented groups, and enhancing our community of inclusiveness and to make UVA a better place for everyone.

And, despite the suggestion that there are few substantive results from our diversity efforts, the University has the highest graduation rate for African American students of any public university in the nation. Our current focus is helping minority students succeed in the STEM fields. Next month we will welcome the most diverse class in UVA’s history.

The Board of Visitors recently approved an endowed professorship in Dr. Martin’s name in recognition of his valuable and lasting contributions to medical education and the University community.

Bacon’s response: Dr. Martin sounds like major asset to the university. (See his full bio here. It is impressive.) I don’t think my article characterized him as “merely a bureaucrat,” but if I left that impression, I am happy to stand corrected.

Now, on the much more substantive issue of the effectiveness of UVa’s diversity program, one of de Bruyn’s statements — “the University has the highest graduation rate for African American students of any public university in the nation” — also could use some context.

Yes, it’s true, UVa does have the highest graduation rate for African-American students of any public university in the nation. That’s an achievement for which the university deserves accolades, and which I have lauded on more than one occasion.

However, UVa also has one of the strictest admissions policies of any public university in the country — certainly of any public university in the state — as seen in the exceptionally low percentage of lower-income Pell grant students in the student body. There is a very high correlation between Pell grant status and the six-year drop-out rate. More Pell students means more drop-outs; fewer Pell students means higher graduation rates. Insofar as Pell grant recipients disproportionately hail from African-American families, UVa’s admissions policies limit the number of lower-income African-Americans at higher risk of dropping out.

So, the question is this: Is the exceptionally high graduation rate of UVa’s African-American students due to the ministrations of the diversity bureaucracy or to the stringency of the university’s admissions policies, to some combination of the two, or perhaps to other policies entirely? I would love to see some hard data.

How Big Is UVa’s Diversity Bureaucracy?

Marcus Martin, chief diversity officer at UVa

The University of Virginia is paying its Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity, Marcus Martin, $349,000 a year — the highest salary of any of 50 higher-education diversity officer identified by Campus Reform, a project of the conservative, non-profit Leadership Institute.

How much money are public universities devoting to their diversity bureaucracies, Campus Reform asks, and could that money provide a greater benefit to minority students in the form of financial aid?

While Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), acknowledged to Campus Reform that “colleges today are educating a much broader range of students,” he suggested that “it is certainly worth asking whether runaway expenditures on inclusion and diversity staff are actually helping to create a campus where students of different backgrounds share their experiences and views.”

“Too many institutions spend lavishly on teams of highly-compensated and narrowly-focused administrative specialists,” he added, noting that the University of California at Berkeley “spends $18 million annually on a staff of 150 in its Office of Inclusion and Equity.”

“Let’s turn these funds instead to bringing more deserving students from underserved backgrounds to Berkeley,” Poliakoff continued. “It is crucial for boards and leaders to ask whether spending on new administrative salaries will serve the genuine needs of students or just fulfill the wishes of certain administrators.”

So, how big is UVa’s diversity bureaucracy? It’s difficult to say from a perusal of the website. Unlike academic departments, which typically list all professors, instructors and staff on the Web, the Office of Diversity and Equity does not. But we can glean some details.

UVa’s Office of Diversity and Equity (ODE) describes its mission this way:

[The Office] assists and monitors all units of the University in their efforts to recruit and retain faculty, staff, and students from historically underrepresented groups and to provide affirmative and supportive environments for work and life at the University of Virginia.

[It] provides leadership, information, consultation, coordination, and assistance to the various units and constituencies within the University of Virginia in an effort to embrace diversity and equity as pillars of excellence, synergize actions at all levels of the institution, and cultivate inclusiveness and mutual respect throughout the community.

While the ODE does not list its employees, it does link to various committees including the Diversity Council, which pulls in 38 committee members from around the university; the Disability Advocacy and Action Committee, which lists a chairperson and staff member; the LGBT Committee, which also has a chair person and staff member; the Women’s Leadership Council, which consists of 15 committee members; and the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University.

Individual schools at UVa also maintain their own mini-diversity bureaucracies. For example, the McIntire School of Commerce has an Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. The Engineering school has a Center for Diversity in Engineering. The law school and Darden school of business also cite extensive activities and partnerships relating to diversity.

Last but not least, the University also has something called the Idea Fund, which enjoys a “close relationship” with the Office for Diversity and Equity, and is staffed by that office. The Idea Fund lists the following:

  • Marcus Martin, M.D. – Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity
  • Meghan Saunders Faulkner – Assistant to the Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity for Programs and Projects
  • Jessica McCauley – Virginia-North Carolina Alliance Program Coordinator
  • Kristin L. Morgan – Director, University & Community Relations and Development
  • Gail Prince-Davis – Administrative Assistant to the Vice President
  • Debra White – Director of Business Operations and Grants Management

Here’s what the Idea Fund does:

IDEA Fund Trustees generally advocate for the promotion of the Fund’s values within the University. Through meetings and communications with alumni, administrators, staff, students, community members and faculty, IDEA Fund Trustees are committed to staying abreast of, collaborating on, and sponsoring events, programs, committees, symposia and appointments that serve its values. Examples of this are collaborations on past annual MLK celebration events, sponsorships of symposia, statements of support and concern to University leadership on topics that are relevant to the Fund’s mission, and providing mentoring support to minority/underrepresented students, faculty, and staff at the University through focused alumni networking and contacts.

Whatever else these people do, it’s evident that they hold a lot of meetings and participate in a lot of events, programs and symposia. Whether all this activity adds up to substantive support for minority students or mainly constitutes a lot of ivory tower navel-gazing is less clear.

So, how effective is the Office of Diversity and Equity? Take a look at the Office’s Diversity Dashboard, and you’ll find that UVa, despite its commitment to ethnic diversity, isn’t very diverse. Here’s the breakdown of undergraduate students:

That’s the flattering graph. The stats for faculty, graduate students, and staff show even less diversity — although the university is making an effort to change that. Thirty-one percent of the Tenure Track & Tenured professors hired in 2015-16 were non-white.

The underlying assumption of all this bureaucratic activity is that ethnic minorities need more than financial aid to attend UVa. They need the ministrations of a small army of diversity administrators. That’s a convenient assumption for university administrators to have. Perhaps someone should ask minority students which they would prefer: more diversity administrators or more financial aid?

Hat tip: Elena Siddall

UVa Philanthropy Now Equals State Support

What would T.J. say?

The University of Virginia could reach a milestone this year: collecting more money from private donations than from the state.

At a Board of Visitors meeting earlier this month, Melody Bianchetto, UVa’s vice president for finance, told board members that a steady stream of philanthropic income is expected to provide more than $150 million in operating funds over the next years, reports Derek Quizon with the Daily Progress. That compares to the $150.5 million appropriated from the state General Fund to the University of Virginia this year.

Quizon asks an interesting question: If the trend of increasing reliance upon private over public support continues, what are the implications for how UVa is governed? Will the General Assembly lose leverage?

“You’re more responsive to the goals of the people who give you your revenue,” says Dustin Weeden, who analyzes higher-ed issues for the National Conference for State Legislators. “There are a whole host of concerns private donors have that are different from the goals of the state.”

Private donors tend to favor things like new facilities and research, which could benefit the state in other ways, but not necessarily in the way public universities traditionally benefit the state: with affordable undergraduate degrees for in-state students. “Public institutions can’t completely shrug it off,” Weeden said. “But I think they push for more autonomy and control over their own operations.”

Weatherford said UVa and William & Mary are experimenting with a new model — new for public universities in Virginia at any rate — that may allow them to keep costs low in the long run. They have the freedom to try this experiment because the state allows it, says Greg Weatherford, spokesman for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. “One of the best things about being in Virginia is they have the flexibility to try that,” he said.

Quizon also quotes me in the article, addressing the question of whether UVa might aim to become a private institution. Even if the shift to private philanthropy continues, I opined, I didn’t see the university seeking to transform itself into a private institution. “That impulse does exist — people would probably love to get rid of that General Assembly oversight and cut the strings — but at the end of the day, they want to be a state institution.”

Bacon’s bottom line: No question, passing the 50/50 milestone of philanthropic versus public funding has symbolic value, reminding everyone of the state’s diminished role in supporting the university. But that $150 million is still critical to the institution’s functioning. It could not be replaced by philanthropy in the short run, and it could not be easily replaced by raising tuition. The balance of power in the relationship between the university and the state doesn’t change. Unless UVa uses more of those philanthropic dollars to stabilize tuition, as opposed to building a grander, more prestigious institution of higher learning, they will rely upon state funding and legislators will continue to agitate against tuition hikes.