The University of Virginia is facing a real problem which it can no longer ignore. Over the last twenty years, it has fallen far behind its competitors in academic research. While peer schools like the University of California, Berkley and the University of Michigan consistently rank in the Top 10 for almost all key areas of research, UVa fails to reach the Top 25 in many of the same areas. Particularly in subjects such as history, politics, and English, where UVa is traditionally seen as strong, both Berkeley and Michigan rank significantly higher in terms of research prowess. The main reason for this disparity is that the amount of funding provided by the state government as a percentage of revenue has gradually fallen to 8 percent.
To resolve this crisis, UVa simply needs more financial resources to build its research community and attract elite professors. There are two ways to achieve these objectives—either demand more funding from the state government or seek more independence from state government and increase out of state enrollment. Each option has its own trade-offs.
The first path, increasing funding from the state government, has both advantages and less ideal aspects to it. The state government has in the past consistently promised UVa more funding and then failed to deliver. Were the state to follow through on its commitments, UVa’s financial troubles would likely be solved, yet this also means less independence for the University . More involvement by the government usually results in conformity to its perspective and interests, which could limit the freedom of academics and governance at the school. UVa has already tasted this meddling with the experience of Helen Dragas, who was appointed by the state government and whose actions caused much upheaval at UVa in 2012.
The other potential solution is to increase out-of-state enrollment. As a result of the significantly higher tuition that non-resident students pay, UVa would have more financial resources available for research and other projects. Schools like the University of Michigan have already implemented this approach and seen positive results. The other benefit of this approach is that the state government would reduce its funding for UVa as well decrease its involvement in UVa’s affairs. At the same time, the downside is that it would reduce access for in-state students, and eliminate slots for applicants from lower income families. This strikes directly against Thomas Jefferson’s vision of truly public university. If UVa chooses to go this route, it will be sacrificing his vision to improve the quality of its research.
Although academic research is not directly related to quality of education, it does bring elite professors on board. Most everyone at UVa knows of Professor Elzinga and Professor Sabato, and better academic research will be what attracts individuals of similar reputations to the University. Thus UVa must make a fateful choice between upping its status by targeting out-of-state students or sacrificing independence from the state for the same goal.
By Shimiao Wang, Opinion Section Editor and YAF Contributor