Tag Archives: University of Virginia

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.

UVa Hikes In-State Tuition by 2.2%

The University of Virginia Board of Visitors has approved a 2.2% tuition hike for in-state students and a 3.5% increase for out-of-state graduates — the second year of modest increases after years of aggressive increases.

Administrators said the increases are necessary to address $24 million in new costs next school year along with a $7 million cut in state appropriations, reports the Daily Progress.

UVa came under intense political pressure during the 2017 General Assembly session when legislators proposed a series of bills that would constrain the ability of public Virginia universities to raise tuition. None of the bills passed, but they put the higher-ed establishment on notice that citizens were running out of patience with the runaway cost of attendance at Virginia colleges.

It will be interesting to see if the UVa decision portends a moderation in tuition increases at other public institutions.

Author Files Suit to Spur Investigation of UVa Admissions

Jeff Thomas delved into UVa admissions practices in his book, 'Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century."

Jeff Thomas delved into UVa admissions practices in his book, ‘Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century.”

Jeff Thomas, author of “Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power,” has filed a complaint asking the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Western District of Virginia to launch an independent investigation into admissions practices at the University of Virginia. Reports the Cavalier Daily:

Thomas said in an email to The Cavalier Daily he filed the federal complaint because the University and the state government are incapable of independently investigating what he called a “corruption scandal,” which could implicate political donors, legislators and members of the University Board of Visitors.

“If U.Va. will not release the complete, unredacted documents, then an investigating body with subpoena power must compel them to do so,” Thomas said.

Thomas brought public attention to the issue of favoritism in admissions when he passed along documents he obtained though a Freedom of Information Act to the Washington Post. The heavily redacted documents showed that the UVa department of university advancement maintained a “watch list” of applicants of interest to potential donors, and lobbied the president’s office on their behalf. The documents did not indicate whether the president’s office passed along the requests for preferential treatment or how the admissions office might have responded.

University spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said in an email to the Cavalier Daily that the university objects to Thomas’ allegations. “The University remains confident in the integrity of its rigorous admission process. There is no evidence to support this speculation.”

Thomas brushed off the university’s denials: “It is also imperative that U.Va., end this potentially illegal practice immediately and that President Sullivan issue an apology to the many deserving students in Virginia who have been denied admission under her watch because their parents could not or did not contribute money to the University.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Given the evidence I’ve seen, it seems clear that the advancement office sought preferential consideration of rich-kid applicants. The question in my mind is whether the advancement office went through the motions of appealing to the president’s office so they could go back and tell their donors, “Hey, we tried,” or whether advancement officials truly expected the president’s office to intervene. The ultimate question, of course, is whether the admissions office ever caved in to a special request.

When I was publisher of Virginia Business magazine, the sales guys frequently brought me special requests from advertisers asking for preferential editorial treatment. I’d say, “No,” and the sales guys would go back to their clients and say, “We gave it a shot.” Sometimes we’d lose an advertiser, but sometimes the client felt grateful that the sales guys made an effort on their behalf.

That’s the innocent explanation of what’s happening at UVa.

Denials from the university administration are to be expected, however, and no serious journalist would accept its word on the matter without vetting it thoroughly. After all, UVa would be the exception if it didn’t play favorites. On the other hand, while giving preferential treatment to rich kids might be bad optics, it’s not clear from the Cavalier Daily article upon what grounds the practice would be illegal, even if proven to be true. I would be astonished if the U.S. Attorney picked up the case.

UVa’s Invisible Research Subsidies

David S. Wilkes, dean of the UVa schools of medicine

The Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health will make it harder to find new cures — and harder to create new jobs, contends David S. Wilkes, dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine. In 2016 UVa received $126 million in NIH funding, accounting for about 60% of its research funding.

NIH backing allowed UVa researchers to discover a link between the brain and immune system, potentially leading to treatments of neurological diseases such as autism and Alzheimer’s. An NIH-supported clinical trial is providing the final tests for a UVa-developed artificial pancreas that can help people with Type 1 diabetes. Meanwhile, scientific research at UVa is stimulating the rise of a job-creating innovation ecosystem in the Charlottesville area. Writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed page, Wilkes says:

In 2016, the National Venture Capital Association ranked Charlottesville as the fastest-growing venture capital ecosystem in the U.S., and medical start-ups are [an] important part of that boom.

U.Va. Innovation, which helps bring U.Va. research discoveries to the marketplace, has identified more than 50 active companies advancing U.Va. discoveries. Many of those companies were founded to develop U.Va. medical research breakthroughs.

A study conducted by the research firm Tripp Umbach found that in fiscal year 2015, U.Va. School of Medicine’s research generated an economic impact to Virginia of $425.4 million. That economic impact would be greatly diminished if NIH funding were slashed.

Bacon’s bottom line: One can pick at these numbers, but let us accept them as valid for the moment. Wilkes is making the argument that what’s good for UVa research is good for Virginia economic development. Advocates of investing in life sciences are employing similar logic for life-science initiatives in Northern Virginia, Richmond, Norfolk and Roanoke.

UVa is playing a hyper-competitive industry sector, however, and it starts with big competitive disadvantages as it tries to build a biomedical ecosystem from scratch in a small metropolitan area. According to the 2016 Jones Lang Lasalle study, the Boston, San Francisco, Raleigh-Durham and San Diego metropolitan areas have the nation’s leading life-sciences clusters. None of the top 16 clusters are located in Virginia. The closest geographically is the “Maryland suburbs/D.C. metro.” It takes a lot more than a research university to play in this sandbox. A large labor pool is a necessity for recruiting top scientific and entrepreneurial talent, and UVa’s location in little Charlottesville presents a big handicap.

If UVa were investing only its endowment dollars in competing for NIH grants and other life-science research, that would be UVa’s business and nobody else’s. As long as the money for this initiative comes exclusively from wealthy alumni and philanthropists, and as long as Virginia taxpayers, tuition-paying families, and bill-paying patients of UVa’s medical system are held harmless, no one has grounds for complaint.

Unfortunately, UVa isn’t relying solely upon wealthy donors to fund its ambitions to build a world-class medical research center. UVa has developed mechanisms to extract wealth from others — patients, students, taxpayers — to underwrite its efforts. Because these mechanisms are so opaque, however, no one in Virginia sees them.

Wilkes does mention one of these funding sources, UVa’s controversial, $2.1 billion Strategic Investment Fund, in a positive light. The fund was cobbled together from various pots of money which were generating minimal investment returns. By combining these pools of money and handing them over to the University of Virginia Investment Management Company, the university hopes to generate an estimated $100 million a year in investment revenue. The Board of Visitors has approved using most of this money for institutional advancement, including R&D. But that is a choice. Alternatives include using the money to reduce tuition, bolster financial aid, or build non-research programs. Accordingly, students and parents who pay tuition, and the Commonwealth of Virginia, which pays millions of dollars in state support, have a direct interest in how Strategic Investment Fund proceeds are allocated.

According to the National Science Foundation, a third of UVa’s R&D expenditures are internally generated (classified as “institution funds” in the table to the left). Institution funds amounted to $74.8 million for life sciences and $122.6 million for all R&D in 2015 — before the Strategic Investment Fund existed.

I could not find a definition of “institution funds” on the NSF website, but I expect that it includes monies flowing from one or all of the following: (1) the university’s endowment, which is funded by philanthropy; (2) discretionary academic monies, which are funded through tuition and state support; and/or (3) surplus revenues (profits) from the UVa Medical Center, which is derived from patient revenues. To the extent that UVa research is funded by tuition, tax dollars, and patient revenues to cover buildings, faculty, grad students administrative overheard, and the like, it is fair to say that students, taxpayers, and patients are subsidizing research. The size of that subsidy remains a mystery. I don’t believe UVa (or any other Virginia public university) publishes such a number. It may not even calculate a number.

While R&D-generated economic development might be a good thing for Charlottesville and Virginia from the perspective of creating high-paying research and technology jobs, much of the funding ultimately comes from populations who have no idea what they’re subsidizing. Students are paying higher tuition (and accumulating more debt) and patients are paying more for medical services. The system is so opaque, the accounting so arcane, that no one sees or understands these wealth transfers. Perhaps the economic development is worth the cost of higher tuition and patient fees, but who can say unless we have an open and honest conversation?

New Question: What Role Does the President’s Office Play in UVa Admissions?

UVa spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn. Pay careful attention to what he says and how he says it.

The University of Virginia’s office of University Advancement curried favor for children of major donors by working through the office of President Teresa Sullivan rather than lobbying the admissions department directly.

That’s the big reveal in reporting by Daily Progress reporter Derek Quizon in his follow-up to the Washington Post reporting on documents showing that the University of Virginia’s fund-raising office routinely intervenes on behalf of applicants from families of potential donors.

More than 160 pages of records, uncovered by writer Jeff Thomas through a Freedom of Information Act request and given to the Washington Post, reveal dozens of instances in which the university advancement office monitored the progress of particular applicants through the admissions process.

Quizon built on the WaPo story by highlighting the fact that, rather than seeking to influence the admissions office directly, advancement officials often appealed to Sean Kirk Jenkins, a special assistant to President Teresa Sullivan. Jenkins is repeatedly referenced in the documents.

However, Quizon concludes after his review of the evidence, “It’s not clear how successful the advancement office was in these outreach efforts.”

University spokesman Anthony de Bruyn denied that the university favors the children of donors, but he conceded in communication with the Daily Progress that the advancement office does maintain contact with donors and alumni “recommending students who have an interest in attending UVa.”

De Bruyn’s statements (as quoted and paraphrased by Quizon) seem carefully wordsmithed.

“This practice allows development officers to serve as a buffer with those alumni, donors and friends who have provided prospective student endorsements during the admission cycle,” de Bruyn said. “However, the admissions office makes the independent determination on whether a student is admitted or not.”

In line with university protocol, the admissions office does not coordinate with the advancement office during the admissions process, de Bruyn said.

But the concern now isn’t that the advancement office coordinated with the admissions office, it’s that the advancement office coordinated with the president’s office and that Jenkins might have intervened with the admissions office. Quizon continues:

When asked whether the advancement office has ever successfully changed an applicant’s admission status, de Bruyn repeated that admissions officials are the only ones who determine who gets into the university.

“The advancement office does not determine whether an applicant is admitted,” he said.

Again, de Bruyn is answering Quizon’s queries very narrowly. Someone needs to ask him directly, “Does the president’s office ever seek to influence the admissions process?” Another question to ask: “Even if admissions officers have the final say on who gets in, does influence from the president’s office carry any weight?”

Bacon’s bottom line: Here’s what we know: (1) UVa donors and potential donors frequently seek special treatment for their children. (2) They enlist the help of the office of University Advancement. (3) University Advancement seeks to influence selections through the office of the President. We don’t know whether the office of the president exercises any influence on Admissions. But the FOIA documents and UVa’s careful response to questions fuel our suspicions.

Nothing de Bruyn said contradicts the hypothesis that Jenkins intervened on behalf of University Advancement, and it’s difficult to understand why advancement officials would have repeatedly worked through Jenkins unless they thought that he might be able to help them. But there is no proof. We cannot rule out the possibility that, in contravention of our cynical expectations, Jenkins never lifted a finger for the favor seekers.

Reporters covering this story should focus on the Jenkins connection. Thomas’ original Freedom of Information Act request was limited to the advancement office. Someone needs to expand the FOIA request to obtain Jenkins‘ communications with the admissions office.

At the same time, we need to be careful what we make of this favoritism, if in fact it occurs. As I mentioned in my previous post on this topic, we may be talking relatively small numbers — only 59 children of potential donors were mentioned in the FOIA documents. The actual number might have been larger — we don’t know for sure. But the number given preferential treatment, if indeed such treatment can be documented, could be much smaller. If a couple dozen of the roughly 10,000 students admitted to UVa this year benefited from favoritism, this is not a massive scandal. Yes, it strips away the veneer that UVa admits all students on a purely meritocratic basis (leavened by aggressive recruitment of minorities). That would put it in the same camp as every other university in the country. If there is a scandal, it is national in scope, and we have no way of no way of knowing whether UVa’s (alleged) sins are more or less egregious than those of any other institution.

A Thumb on the Scale for Rich Kids Applying to UVa

The University of Virginia — how meritocratic?

The news hardly comes a surprise but it’s unnerving to see the details in print: The University of Virginia’s fund-raising arm seeks to help the children of potential donors gain admittance to the university, according to documents reviewed by the Washington Post.

Writes reporter Rees Shapiro: “The records from the U-Va. advancement office, which oversees fundraising for the prestigious public flagship, reveal nearly a decade of efforts to monitor admission bids and in some cases assist those in jeopardy of rejection.”

One of several examples cited in the article:

The 2011 list, for example, shows that one hopeful was initially marked as denied. Then an advancement officer scribbled a handwritten note on the tracking file: “$500k.” A typed notation said “must be on WL,” for wait list. A final handwritten note urged, “if at all possible A,” for accepted. The final decision on the applicant was not shown.

A university spokesman denied that the admissions office coordinates with the advancement office, although he did acknowledge, “The Office of Advancement is occasionally contacted by alumni, friends and supporters recommending students who have an interest in attending U-Va. Such a practice is not unique to U-Va. and can be found at similar institutions.”

The Post obtained 164 pages of documents, mostly spreadsheets, from Jeff Thomas, author of the 2016 book, “Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power,” who in turn had gotten them through a Freedom of Information Act request. In the book Thomas was highly critical of UVa admission and financial aid policies, but he did not make use of the materials he passed on to the Post.

The University is one of the richest schools in the country, with an endowment of $5.8 billion, notes the Post. Building the endowment through contributions is a never-ending preoccupation of the UVa brass. The funds are needed to meet the Board of Visitors’ ambitious goal to break into the ranks of the Top 10 universities in the country.

Bacon’s bottom line: So, UVa gives special treatment to students whose wealthy parents might donate big bucks to the university. UVa denies it happens, but nobody believes the disclaimers. The fact is, almost every university in the country does what UVa does. Every institution grubs for money to pay for its dreams of institutional glory.

But let’s put this in perspective. How frequent is the phenomenon, and how many meritorious students does the practice displace?

The documents cited by the Post show that the admissions office tracked at least 59 applicants for the incoming class of 2021. I do not know how Jeff Thomas phrased his FOIA request, but if we assume that he asked for all relevant documents and that UVa was responsive to that request, 59 is probably a ceiling.

How many of those 59 received preferential treatment? Consider the following possibilities:

  • Some applicants would have qualified for admission on their own merits and needed no preferential treatment.
  • Interventions were not always successful. As one advancement officer wrote in a tracking file: ““According to people who have talked to him, [the donor] is livid about the WL decision and holding future giving in the balance. Best to resolve quickly, if possible.” The implication here is that a resolution favorable to the donor was no sure thing.
  • Not every one of the applicants who received an acceptance letter chose to attend UVa. Some students receive better offers elsewhere and turn UVa down.

Even if all 59 students got accepted, if all 59 owed their success to the good graces of the advancement office, and if all 59 decided to attend, they would have accounted for fewer than o.2 percent of the 36,807 applicants to the university that year, and only 0.6 percent of the 9,957 admissions.

Finally, let’s consider who would get knocked off the acceptance list. It wouldn’t be some poor kid from inner-city Norfolk or a coal mining town in Appalachia. UVa admissions prioritizes the best and brightest from poor communities. The victim probably would be an upper middle-class kid from Fairfax or Henrico counties whose SAT scores, high school transcripts and essays didn’t stand out quite enough. Gee, they might have to settle for Virginia Tech or James Madison, both highly regarded schools. What a heartbreak!

In terms of numbers, the displacement of 59 applicants by kids from mega-donor families is almost trivial. A far greater barrier to attending UVa is the ever-escalating cost of attendance. That’s where our focus should be.

Update: Jeff Thomas contacted me to say that the reason he didn’t use the FOIA’ed documents in his book is that the book was published in October 2016 and he received the materials in March 2017. “You’re correct in assuming that I requested ‘the list for all available years,’ and they provided them for the last ten. I did not request all the documents related to them.”