President Casteen Peggy Harrison

If my memory is correct, my first report to alumni, students’ families, and staff and faculty must have gone out in mid-fall 1990. In those days, I sent letters that took shape over several weeks in typewriters and later on word processors. Over time, the letters, then reports, and now pages in Virginia Magazine and sometimes email reports have become for me important (and thoroughly pleasant) chances to share what I am thinking about and seeing in our University, and requests for advice, which has come back regularly and proved to be very useful. Thank you for that. These responses and other advice or cautions offered in alumni and parents’ meetings and in sessions with students, staff members, and faculty members have move the University aggressively—confidently—into a new century.

I tried earlier today to find a file containing all of these reports because I thought it might help me prepare this one. I have not found it, and that may be just as well. I realized while hunting that this one is different—that saying goodbye and godspeed requires something other than a fixed eye on the past. The following paragraphs will to some extent look back because I owe thanks to many people, apologies to some, commendations to other, and whatever immortality in the University’s memory my words may lend to still others. But the word godspeed looks forward, which is where I hope to look in this message.

Much of what we set out to do back in 1990, the year when it became clear that the state would not carry through on commitments made to its colleges and universities in the late 1980s, has happened. Many of you own credit for that. Talented students, supportive alumni and parents, a growing endowment and the capacity or will to manage new assets and commit them even in hard times to the academic program, new and better buildings, a roster of distinguished scholars, researchers, and faculty members in diverse fields who visibly influence our world, thus building the University’s stature, and even the management model—these developments after our primary sponsor left the table reflect both the power of the tradition that lies beneath the University and the worth of the commitments that you have made, whether financial or other, including the commitments of the daughters and sons you have sent to us for their educations.

Committed, largely autonomous schools led by strong deans have come into their own during this time. Foundations to support these independent schools and other University ventures have stepped in to fill many of the gaps left by the steady loss of state tax dollars. They have earned their own share of credit for advances in all of our schools during this time. 

Together, we have made plans, adopted metrics to make improvement something more than rhetoric, and learned that we must acknowledge weaknesses or deficiencies before we can change. With leadership from Leonard Sandridge, several talented provosts, Bob Sweeney, Gordon Burris, and others, that work progressed with the kind of audacity that I hear in Jefferson’s words about his Republic, about his aspirations for Americans, and certainly about his University. The quality of audacity facing the future comes to mind even (perhaps especially) when I read the words on his tombstone, and wonder how he came to imagine what he created. And I have heard it in the voices of each generation of new students as they have stopped to talk for a moment or written to express their impatience with some failing—there have been many. It is in the water here.

So I realize that in leaving my duties I need to write about the hard things as well as the successes. In an early conversation, I had to tell President-elect Sullivan that despite appearances (the Grounds, loyal faculty colleagues, new buildings and buildings now under way to support what has to be a breath-taking step forward in science and in the arts) University finances are painfully thin. That we ranking on various surveys in the range of 10-15 in quality and 60-65 in resources says much about the University as a value proposition. Sadly, it also says much about the state’s failure to invest in a system of education once thought to be impregnable. Private support, rigid internal economies, higher tuition (although not yet high enough to replace the lost state dollars, particularly when one considers the real cost of educating our in-state students), financially independent and highly successful professional schools, and AccessUVa perhaps mitigate the damage that began in 1990-91. They do not repair it or make it disappear.

Our expenditure budget is now about $2.25 billion, including the College at Wise. The state’s contribution is $151 million, which is both considerable and unreliable. It has been reduced four times during the last three years. Even $151 million (i.e., the total state appropriation for the academic division) is no more than 6.7 percent of $2.25 billion. Ironically, the trend in state finance is that almost all public priorities now outweigh educating the young.

The sharpest increase in state spending since 1995 is in transfers to local government. At first glance, that looks good. Yet total local budgets continue to shrink because these new state dollars are partial replacement for the local tax on cars that became in the mid-1990s Virginia’s special contribution to the tax battles of that time. No candidates for governor opposed this swap back then. Almost all saw it as something for nothing. Even now, few are bold enough to point out now that the emperor has no clothes. The supposed tax cut meant that local governments had to find other ways, new taxes or hidden taxes, to make ends meet. In the meantime, the state failed to invest in its infrastructure.

Recent governors have struggled to find ways to finance repairs to a highway system that is no longer the best in the nation. In fact, if one drives the wrong stretch of interstate around Washington or even Richmond, it may appear to be one of the worst. Localities facing record enrollments in their schools are laying off teachers, freezing salaries, and taking other steps to cut costs because now that a real recession has come even the K-12 schools have come under the state budget axe. Few now claim that the state really did what it promised to do when it tried to cut out the core local tax.

As his opponent did also in the fall election, Governor McDonnell has recognized the special effect of 1995’s plunge into uncharted airspace. Estimates of the shortfall between the number of Virginia high schoolers who want to attend Virginia’s colleges and the seats available for them range from 70,000 to 100,000. Governor McDonnell has (rightly) chosen the larger number. His commission on higher education, which will probably be hard at work before you read this report, will face the need to find those new seats as its first order of business.

Our local share of this problem is painfully easy to state and hard to resolve. Virginia sends us wonderful students, but students whose University educations are now largely financed by the tuition charged to out-of-state students. Based on the state’s formula, Virginia students pay 63 percent of the cost of their educations. Non-Virginians pay 239 percent and thus meet the otherwise unmet cost created by state budget reductions since 1990.

Many of Virginia’s localities support excellent school systems. Fairfax County’s is arguably the best in the nation, a stature that reflects that county’s capacity and political will to have excellent schools. Other cities and counties often struggle to maintain a semblance of top-tier courses despite the largely unproductive requirement that they spend their funds on complying with No Child Left Behind. Whatever intentions lay behind that program have done nothing measurable to improve education for all students and have in fact led to sometimes-hidden but historically unprecedented drop-out rates in many public school districts. Failing students are quietly counseled to leave rather than fail to graduate, and then to pursue the GED as an alternative qualification for entry-level jobs.

A simple solution might be merely to command, as some legislators have sometimes tried to do, fewer new out-of-state students here. After two decades of ever-deeper cuts in state support and recurring demands that tuition increases not take the place of lost state tax dollars, the well is pretty much dry, and not only here. The state’s other public colleges are generally worse off than we are. One or two presidents say openly now that the state should simply give up, acknowledge that it will not pay to educate its future citizens, declare these colleges private, and let the colleges figure out how to do what the state has not done. Catchy though that remedy may sound, it makes no sense for us, but the talk is all around us. Few nowadays hear it as silly.

Because of the state cuts and despite private gifts that must be, if not the largest total to go to any public university since 1990 then among the top two or three largest, the University’s academic budget would need to increase from $894.6 million to $1,734.5 million, an increase of $839.9 million or 94 percent, if our purpose is to be among the top quarter of AAU universities and by $83.5 million per year, or 9 percent, if our purpose is no more than to be among the top half. To generate $83.5 million, our tuition, gifts, and endowment income would need to increase by 16.9 percent. I think that our goal (and Virginia’s, if the purpose is to restore the health of the regional economies that once made our Southside, Tidewater, and Southwest wealthy) ought to be higher, probably to be among the top 10 percent of AAU universities.

I hear various ideas about the future available to us. One that is too rational to be dismissed is that the state has effectively made tuition, once conceived as marginal funding to provide for extras, a fee-for-service, and that this fee ought to rise as state tax funding drops, and by that action converted access to higher education(to the knowledge that Jefferson saw as the prerequisite to freedom in our Republic, from a public good intended for the benefit of all to a private good, intended for those with the means to pay. One can plug in almost any number to estimate what in-state tuition ought to be.

One logic says to charge the full cost per student less the per–student value of whatever the state appropriates. Another says to go perhaps halfway toward that price, and find a level of charges that will actually generate the missing funds, thus pushing in-state tuition toward something like the real value of education here, net of whatever the state actually pays.

Still another proposal would have the state actually pay the total cost of educating in-state students net of whatever nominal tuition charge it actually wants its students to pay. All of these proposals, and others, may seem attractive at first, but in truth none is sufficient. Who calculates the total cost? And is it calculated before or after the state finance train wreck of 1990 or 1995 or 2002?

Yet another proposal has come to appeal to me since coeducation and the doubling of enrollment that began in 1970: rethink and reject the old notion that growth harms the University, and look at the good growth has done. When I was a student in the early 1960s, enrollment was ca. 25 percent of what it is now. Having been a student and then a close observer of our students over almost five decades and experienced the exhilaration of our climb toward global prominence, I have come to realize that enrollment size alone has little or nothing to do with the University’s capacity to teach a way of life centered on honor and responsible citizenship alongside or inside a culture of academic excellence. Literally no one who has seen the changes of the last 40 or so years from inside wants nowadays to go back to the good old days, which may have been (for me, were) great fun, but which offer little or nothing that would benefit students now. Other factors, not least among them unapologetic, clear demonstrations that the University lives the values it teaches, have much more to do with what students achieve here and what they do later. These factors include a deep and abiding engagement with the principles that led to the University’s original creation—the principles listed on Jefferson’s tombstone. Since 1989 or so, we have operated under enrollment growth plans that have added 100-150 students each year. Total enrollment went from 17,910 in 1989 to 20,895 in 2009, an increase of 16.7 percent. The state has paid nothing for this growth. Most of the cost has been absorbed within the University’s system of managing its budgets and endowments, and a major portion has come from donors.

No doubt there are other ways to approach these problems, but I have come to believe that the most effective way to deal with our portion of the statewide shortage of spaces for Virginia students probably combines elements of at least two of these proposals. No one seriously argues that tuition is already too high. As a parent and tuition-payer, I always winced at the bills (generally much higher than our own) when they came, but like most who send their daughters and sons here I planned and paid because I recognized the value. AccessUVa now meets the full need of students whose families qualify under the federal guidelines. It works for both the least advantaged families and many middle-income families, especially those paying for more than one child in college. That program must grow and grow more accessible for more students regardless of all else because it protects students against the economic elitism that Jefferson and every thoughtful shaper of American values since him have opposed.

To put it differently: no strategy to rebuild the financial capacity that has been destroyed by state actions since 1990 will succeed if the University fails to provide full financial aid for students whose families demonstrate need under the federal need guidelines. The federal Higher Education Act and other federal and state legal and regulatory guidelines call for including some of the cost of student financial aid in the basic tuition charge.

Combining realistic tuition rates with more aggressive increases in total enrollment can remedy at least two needs—the public’s need for a UVA able to compete eye-to-eye with the world’s best and thus to give Virginia what it needs to become once again prosperous, and the state’s need for ways out of its 70,000-100,000-student space deficiency. No matter what, we will have to take our share of these new students. The question is not whether we will increase enrollments, but instead how. If we want to preserve what has mattered in the University as we have known it, we will have to learn even better ways to educate mind and soul than we have learned since 1970 or so.

Most arguments against larger enrollments include the claim that the Grounds are landlocked, that we have no space to grow. In truth, the University and its foundations have planned ahead since the 1960s for growth. The best example: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, we bought land sufficient for buildings for almost as many students as are now enrolled and for new academic buildings. One parcel acquired more recently actually links the tract between the Boar’s Head golf course to the Grounds (by way of a connector crossing above or below the 250/29 by-pass and if an interchange is included, to I-64. This parcel abuts no settled space: it is behind the neighborhood just east of Birdwood. Our current roads plan includes new accesses that avoid adding to local traffic. And our schools have dozens of ambitious plans for new programs, new majors, new connections between faculty research and student learning.

Assuming sound academic governance and the means (i.e., state tax money, probably in the form of bond authorizations on the scale of Connecticut’s two $1 billion lines of support for growth at UConn—which is to say, the will to make hard decisions and then the means to press forward) these plans can move the University far along the road toward what the premier public university must be in 25 or 50 or even 100 years. The state has learned since 1990 to use its bond capacity. Virginia’s voters have repeatedly approved higher education bond issues by massive majorities. Knowledge grows and changes constantly. Universities that lock themselves into curricular and physical limits that tie them to the past rather than the future quickly, inevitably slide into mediocrity and unimportance.

I believe and hope that the Governor’s commission will examine every aspect of the funding crisis in Virginia’s public colleges, and perhaps also look again at the precarious condition of some of our most respected and treasured private colleges. No single remedy that I might propose today will survive any deliberative process intact, and other approaches must be attempted for other Virginia colleges. But things must change, and dramatically.

Thomas Jefferson believed that change is always good so long as human effort or ingenuity provokes it. Our University has changed in many superficial ways during these years when I have known it. It has also retained its values and increased its stature in the world and its capacity to teach students to change the world. It will change many more times before you, who have been so kind to my family and to me during these 20 years, and (I hope) I have worked off the years of our own obligations to this place.

At the end of his letter to Jefferson, a letter read at the kick-off events in the capital campaign of the late 1990s, Josh Darden wrote “So long, old friend,” as he began a list of our commitments to our founder. I don’t know how “so long” came to mean something like goodbye, but it does, perhaps with the implication that we will meet again. In a sense, these thoughts about present and future, challenges and options, are something like Josh’s “so long.”

Our founder knew that nothing worth attaining is easy, that futures come to those who imagine, then build them, that each generation owes to the next the natural right to know, thus to be free. Our University will, as it has always, contribute its fair share and more to Virginia’s future, and to the futures of those who come from afar “to drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us.” This is our part of the glue, the fabric, that holds our Republic together, that assures the freedom to learn and to grow.

So long, old friends. Let’s look to the future with determination, with Mr. Jefferson’s audacity, and with deep confidence in what President-elect Sullivan, our Rector and Visitors, our faculty leaders, and our students will do in their own time to sustain this place where freedom finds its roots. And let’s look forward to other times and places where we can share that cup with new generations of bright, young Wahoos.