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Unfettered by silly government regulation, schools could gain

January 2, 2005 1:06 am


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.

For example, one state college has complained that the cost of a simple roof replacement skyrocketed by $40,000 because of interference from Richmond. Longwood University's replacement of its Rotunda (which was destroyed by fire) was delayed by months because of the need to route everything through bureaucrats.

George Mason University arranged for its partner foundation to build its most recent dormitory. By using private funds, the Northern Virginia campus avoided the "two-fisted supervision" that squanders so much state money coming out of Richmond. The result: The building was completed five months early at a savings of $7 million. The downside, of course, is that private foundations aren't in a position to do that everywhere, on every building, so the waste of taxpayer money goes on and on.

Colleges would have the option of managing their own human resources, information technology, and financial management operations, and be permitted to invest all tuition, fees, and other locally generated money and plow the investment yield back into the university (currently the state grabs the funds and doles it back to the colleges)--all of which imposes a market discipline currently lacking in college management.

In the end, the battle over the chartered universities proposal comes down to a battle over control, and whether that control should be centralized in Richmond, or the responsibility placed at the university level.

Those who believe that accountability and responsibility should go hand in hand, who support placing decision-making closest to the customer, and who know from experience that there is nothing magical about edicts from the state Capitol, should have no doubt about what needs to be done.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.