By Ali Sullivan
After four months of surveys, conversations, community gatherings and focus groups, the committee formed by University of Virginia President Jim Ryan to evaluate the relationship between the university and the surrounding community released its final report in February. UVA faculty members, a UVA law student, and Charlottesville community leaders comprised the 16-member working group that sought to define priority issues straining town-gown relations.
Various initiatives to mend UVA’s contentious relationship with its surrounding community preceded this effort, yet working group co-chairman Juandiego Wade-—chair of the Charlottesville City School Board—says he believes this effort will transpire differently.
The president is “committed to being a good neighbor,” Wade says, not only to residents of Charlottesville, but to “all the places that the university touches.”
“I’m hearing some very positive things from the community about what’s going on,” he says.
However, the results so far have been more than just good feelings. On March 7—less than a month after the publication of the group’s report—the university announced plans to increase wages for full-time workers to $15 an hour in 2020. Although the announcement follows quickly after the working group’s suggested wage increases, it also comes after decades of student-led activism pushing the university to increase wages for its lowest-paid workers.
The decision matters: Charlottesville offers some of the lowest economic mobility in the nation, and 25.9 percent of city residents live below the federal poverty threshold. As the largest employer in Charlottesville, UVA has immense influence on the surrounding labor market.
While the group outlined wages as the top priority for the university to address, the report also suggests UVA tackle issues related to jobs, health care, housing, and education. Jon Bowen, special advisor to the president for external affairs, notes that, unlike wages, UVA cannot take unilateral action on these issues—change will not happen overnight. Currently, he says, the university is studying possible solutions in collaboration with the community.
Wade noted that no formal accountability structure has been created to ensure the implementation of the group’s suggestions. The report recommended UVA establish an Office of Community Partnerships and Social Impact to monitor university-community initiatives and offer a channel through which Charlottesville residents can provide input to the university. Bowen says the university is working on finding “the most effective channel” for residents to provide input.
Meanwhile, the working group has not yet disbanded, though Wade says it is unsure of its next steps. For now, he says, “we’re still in the glow of the report.”
Ali Sullivan is a news writer at The Cavalier Daily.