At UVA, growth vs. tuition

During the next four to five years, UVA President Teresa Sullivan hopes to increase the student body by 1,400 undergraduates and 100 graduate students, a move that would confer degrees on more than 1,000 Virginians while enrolling enough out-of-staters to keep tuition in check. It could also rearrange UVA’s academic priorities, make room for dozens of new faculty members, and improve the school’s current student-faculty ratio—so long as sufficient state funding comes through.

If UVA gets sufficient state support, then President Sullivan can add nearly 100 new faculty positions to accommodate a 1,500-student increase.

Sullivan’s proposal answers pressure from the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education Reform, Innovation, and Investment. That program, founded in June, seeks to put more Virginians through college and bolster many of the left-brain disciplines that Governor McDonnell has said will “equip Virginians to succeed at the highest levels of global economic competition.” Chief among these are STEM programs—a tidy acronym of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

If STEM prioritization has some at the university nervous, then a perceived lack of resources to support growth is even more pressing. Sullivan’s proposal aims to keep tuition steady following an increase earlier this year. In June, the UVA Board of Visitors approved tuition increases of $956 for in-state students and $1,902 for out-of-state students. As long as the Commonwealth follows through on funding, Sullivan contends, UVA should have no trouble expanding.

“What we don’t have are the faculty,” says University Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Leonard Sandridge. “We have a plan to use the tuition and the state money…to accommodate those needs.” This plan would improve student-faculty ratios, currently at 18 to 1, by bringing on more than 90 new faculty members.

University officials were not prepared to get specific about how faculty spots would be divided among departments. However, Meredith Woo, Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, says that the programs UVA intends to develop “range from areas of traditional strength such as the humanities to frontier areas in the sciences in which we are poised for distinction, such as global environmental challenges, human life span development, and cosmic origins.”

Those lofty-sounding goals are part of an ongoing commitment to improving research departments. Among these is one that certainly could fill many of the potential new faculty positions: a cross-disciplinary focus on the universe itself. This has already led to the on-grounds establishment of the North American ALMA Science Center—the American headquarters for studying data that the world’s most advanced radio telescope generates in Chile.

The University is also adding its Center for the Chemistry of the Universe, a collaboration between the Chemistry, Astronomy and Physics departments along with the School of Engeering. The Center is scheduled to enter its 10-year, $40 million Phase Two in 2011.

Though the plan is for now merely hypothetical, some worry that the emphasis on STEM programs and generating degrees could result in cuts to arts and sciences and graduate programs. Associate Vice President for Public Affairs Carol Wood insists that these concerns are unfounded. “The goal is to increase quality in the STEM disciplines, [while] at the same time preserving the extraordinary quality that the University has long been known for in the liberal arts,” she says. “There is no intention to sacrifice one for the other.” 

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