by James A. Bacon
Earlier this month the Jefferson Council noted that the Board of Visitors had virtually no input into decision-making for setting the University of Virginia’s tuition & fees in 2025 and 2026. The three-month process, orchestrated by senior administrators, presented a carefully curated set of statistics and allowed no opportunity for board members to engage in substantive discussion.
Based on my observation of the public meetings I attended, it struck me that Board oversight was a sham, and that the Board’s vote in December to approve 3.0% tuition increases rubber-stamped a decision made by the Ryan administration. But I muted my conclusions in writing because I still had questions about how the process worked.
I submitted several questions to Chief Communications Officer Brian Coy. The administration’s response removes any lingering doubts.
The tuition-setting process took place over three months: a meeting of the Finance Committee in October, a public hearing in November allowing public comment, and the full Board of Visitors meeting in December. In each case, the administration made lengthy presentations advancing the case that UVa offered a superior value proposition to students and that rising costs and lagging state appropriations had made tuition hikes necessary. Efforts by one or more board members to discuss UVa’s underlying cost structure were ignored.
Coy answered some of my questions to my satisfaction, and I set those matters aside for now. The questions relevant to this post include:
Question #1: “Who decided upon the format … for the Board’s decision-making process? Was anyone else besides Rector [Robert D.] Hardie and President [Jim] Ryan involved?”
(UVa’s president and rector set the agendas for the board meetings, assisted by the Board of Visitors secretary. By structuring the public meetings the way they did, Hardie and Ryan restricted the time dedicated to tuition & fees to no more than an hour-and-a-half each meeting, and carved out half of that time to allow Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis to present the administration’s case. The only topics discussed were those she addressed in her presentations. By asking this question, I hope to find out how tightly Ryan and Hardie controlled the process. Were others involved in determining the format?)
Question #2: “Did board members have any input into the decision-making process outside of the public hearings, as in one-to-one communications with President Ryan, [Chief Operating Officer] J.J. Davis, or anyone else working for the administration?”
(It was clear that the Board of Visitors played no meaningful role in public deliberations. I asked this question to find out if some board members had informal input behind the scenes.)
Question #3: “It was during the public hearing session, I recall, that Davis’ presentation revealed that a tuition increase of between 3% and 4.4% was being considered. In the final meeting the full Board approved a 3% increase. Who made the decision to go with 3%? Was that an administration decision? Was the rector or anyone else associated with the Board of Visitors consulted? If so, who, specifically, was consulted?”
(Based on its lengthy, bottom-up budgeting process, the administration initially proposed tuition & fees increases in a range of 3% to 4.4%. There were two key decisions made during the approval process. One was to pick 3% over 4.4%. The Board of Visitors never discussed that issue in open session. In the other important decision, the final one, the Board was presented with 3% and told to vote yes or no.)
With that lengthy preamble, let me now provide the relevant sections of Coy’s response:
Building a tuition proposal for the Board’s consideration is a process that includes months of preparation, planning, discussion, collaboration, and information-sharing among groups that include – but aren’t limited to – the Finance team, Enrollment, Student Financial Services, the executive leadership, Board leadership, Finance Committee leadership, Board members generally, SCHEV and State leadership, students, and members of the public.
UVA’s executive leadership is grateful for the partnership with the Board and appreciates the opportunity to build a tuition proposal for Board consideration that reflects and advances our shared interest in balancing affordability, excellence, and access as part of our mission as a public institution.
The Board of Visitors voted unanimously (with one abstention) to approve the rates for the next two academic years. The 3% increase for in-state, base tuition is below inflation, and below the Board’s previously agreed-upon multiyear planning assumption of the Higher Education Price Index +1.
That’s it. The response did not illuminate who other than President Ryan and Rector Hardie might have devised the format of the decision-making process. We don’t know if any board members — and, if so, which ones — were consulted behind the scenes in one-on-one conversations.
The response did not say who made the decision to adopt 3.0% tuition increases rather than a figure at the higher end of the range up to 4.4%. Was it President Ryan? Ryan in consultation with Rector Hardie, or others? We don’t know.
Every president of every university becomes adept at manipulating his or her governing board. UVa is no different. Some governing boards push back, asserting their authority over key decisions they are empowered by state law to make. In this case, UVa’s board did not. The Jefferson Council will continue to advocate for governance transparency and for a board that engages in a robust dialogue with UVa’s president and senior staff.