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Unfettered by silly government regulation, schools could gain
Chartered University concept would give Virginia schools needed freedom.

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Date published: 1/2/2005

SPRINGFIELD--A few years ago, every time the presi- dent of America's second oldest university--the College of William & Mary--wanted to erect a temporary riser on campus for a special event, he had to seek permission from a state bureaucrat in Richmond.

Fortunately, that sort of annoying "Mother, may I?" regulation has been abandoned (as long as he sends a list of events at the start of the year), but the more expensive and inflexible regulations that stifle growth remain. They are the subject of the "chartered university" concept now being discussed in the commonwealth.

In short, the chartered university idea would give any of Virginia's 15 four-year higher education institutions more financial flexibility and regulatory freedom.

Universities would receive the institutional agility necessary to attract more research funding, accommodate increased student growth, and more efficiently and effectively secure cost savings that could hold down tuition increases or strengthen university programs.

Sadly, Gov. Mark Warner has been reluctant to endorse this move toward 21st-century higher education governance--despite similar moves to grant university flexibility in other states, among them Massachusetts, Texas, Arizona, and North Dakota.

In fact, Virginia has already granted virtual independence at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University teaching hospitals in recognition of the adaptability needed in modern medicine. Education in this new century is no different.

Accountability would still remain, in the form of boards appointed by and accountable to the governor with oversight reports still submitted to the General Assembly and to state agencies.

But a carefully crafted individualized charter agreement--a contract between the state and the university--could go a long way toward expanding Virginians' accessibility to higher education by enabling universities to enhance financial aid packages and supply additional funding to accommodate the burgeoning number of Virginia high school seniors.

Unfortunately, this last point appears to have unnerved some state conservatives who view "additional funding" as a surrogate for "higher taxes." As one put it: "Somehow, somewhere, the taxpayer is going to be [harmed] by this scheme."

But the argument is even clearer that taxpayers are already ill-served by the current scheme of over-regulation on state university functions. University construction programs are hamstrung by procedures requiring approval from Richmond for every project or change in that project--adding 20 percent or more to the cost of construction and creating significant project delays.

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