by James A. Bacon
Like most higher-ed critics, Bacon’s Rebellion conducts analysis of Virginia’s higher-ed institutions from a politically conservative perspective. Colleges and universities have mostly gotten a pass from commentators on the left wing of the political spectrum because, I would suggest, colleges and universities are almost all leftist-dominated institutions. But there are occasional exceptions.
One of those is a course taught by University of Virginia assistant professor Laura Goldblatt this spring, “The Marketplace of Ideas? Following the Money at the University of Virginia.” Her course description starts with an excellent question: “Why does student tuition for four-year, US colleges keep rising (at rates above inflation)? And where do all those tuition dollars go?”
Goldblatt, who worked as an English teacher at a failing high school in the Mississippi Delta before coming to UVa, continues (unedited except for paragraph breaks):
Why do some students have to work and take out loans to attend the University of Virginia, when others don’t? What does “need-blind” admissions mean and does the University of Virginia meet full financial need for all students? How do they even calculate that?
Does UVA really refer to students as “revenue generating units” (RGUs) in its bond prospectuses?
Is it true that UVA’s endowment is largely invested in guns and fossil fuels? Is the university, often idiomatically referred to as the marketplace of ideas, a literal marketplace?
In this 7-week empirical engagement, we will tackle the topic of higher education financing and its relationship to the mission of the university. We will draw connections and uncover relationships between the goods universities profess to convey (learning, credentials, social capital, cultural and moral development), their revenue sources (student loans, tuition dollars, state bonds, federal grants, and return on investments), and key cost drivers for higher education, including technology, debt service on construction, maintenance, infrastructure, salaries, lobbying, and (paradoxically) competition.
By considering various case studies around the University—athletics, financial aid, construction, and federal grants—we will calculate, together, the dollars and cents that make the university make sense. Last, we’ll consider what it means to study at a public university largely financed by private dollars and how to follow the money to evaluate different narratives about higher education’s purpose, challenges, and burdens.
Darn good questions. Goldblatt omits some of the big cost drivers that I have focused on, such as administrative bloat and mission creep, but she explores some perspectives that I have overlooked. Does UVA really refer to students as “revenue generating units” in its bond prospectuses? Wow!
Only slightly less provocative is a course in the same “engagement” series taught by associate professor Chad Wellmon, “On the Goods and Uses of the University.” Wellmon describes his course this way:
In 2017, the University of Virginia reported an operating budget of almost $3.2 billion, assets of $11.2 billion, and liabilities of more than $7.8 billion. The university includes an athletics enterprise with 25 programs and $24 million in revenues and expenses; a police force with 67 officers; an investment company that manages resources from 25 tax-exempt foundations, each with its own board; ownership of numerous art, historical, and scholarly collections, including more than five million printed volumes; capital assets in the form of academic buildings, dorms, and a Unesco-recognized World Heritage Site; a top-ranked medical center with several affiliated health companies, more than 12,000 employees, and its own budget of almost $1.5 billion; a concert-and-events venue for everything from monster-truck rallies to the Rolling Stones; a recycling business; a mental-healthcare provider; and a transportation system with a fleet of buses and cars.
UVa also educates around 16,000 undergraduates and 6,500 graduate and professional students each year. With so many different functions and purposes, what makes UVA a university? And how do all of these different activities relate to one another? Using UVA as our primary example, this combined, 14-week Empirical and Ethical Engagement course considers how and why universities work. We will create, analyze, and interpret our own data sets, work in the University’s archives, and debate the goods and uses of the contemporary university.
Wellmon’s course fills one of the gaps in Goldbatt’s course — mission creep. Why does UVa own a concert-and-events venue that hosts monster truck rallies? How does that relate to its educational mission?
It would be awesome if the Board of visitors invited Goldblatt and Wellmon to a board retreat to present capsule versions of their courses. That wouldn’t be quite as good as giving Bacon’s Rebellion a crack at the board, but it would be a darn good way to broaden board members’ thinking about the mission of the institution that they are entrusted with shaping and guiding.