A Downside to Restructuring?

According to Inside Higher Education, public universities in Virginia are learning that sometimes you don’t always get what you want — or what you thought you had.

Over the past five years, a handful of public universities including the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University, and the College of William and Mary, negotiated restructuring agreements with the State of Virginia. In fact, the Virginia model has been cited by campus leaders when discussing increased flexibility from state constraints.

What the Virginia schools have found, however, is that the state has not fully honored those agreements. The state points to language in the agreements that allows for exceptions in dire budget situations. “The reason that language was written that way was understanding that there could be extraordinary circumstances,” said Michael Maul, associate director of the state Department of Planning and Budget. Maul goes on to say that much of the agreement was honored. “In some ways those schools should be thrilled it’s worked as well as it has.”

Much of the concern relates to retirement contributions. Virginia lawmakers decided to reduce payments to the system by $620 million, but participating universities will not see any savings on their campuses.

More upsetting for some is the move by the state to collect “non-general” funds generated by tuition and auxiliaries, like housing and food service. Many campus leaders previously regarded these funds as untouchable and will likely have to raise the cost of those services to make up for the losses. State officials argue that budget reductions would have been even larger if they had not taken non-general funds.

What can UW-Madison learn from Virginia’s experience? Is it possible for a state university to achieve real flexibility?