Virginia Commonwealth University

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Professors Lecture Lawmakers on Higher Ed Issues

January 16, 2012

Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, in his legislative office in the Virginia General Assembly building in Richmond on Higher Education Advocacy Day. (CNS photo by Christine Stoddard)

By Christine Stoddard
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – On a mild winter morning the day after the General Assembly opened, 36 professors and 12 students from colleges and universities in Central Virginia came to the state Capitol on a daylong mission: to encourage legislators to better meet higher education’s financial and policy needs.

Led by faculty from VCU, the participants had six hours to push for more money for higher education, lower tuition for in-state students and greater compensation and benefits for teachers at the state’s public colleges and universities.

Dr. Patricia Cummins, professor in the VCU School of World Studies and head organizer of the event, embraced the symbolism of Virginia Higher Education Advocacy Day by likening the mission to a post-WWII mentality.

“The GI Bill helped produced 30 years of the greatest prosperity the U.S. has ever known. Back then, people realized that higher education serves both the social and individual good,” Cummins said.

“More recently, there’s been a shift in philosophy that higher education’s more of an individual good than a societal good. We’re trying to swing the pendulum. So I coined a phrase that we use, ‘Virginia Higher Education – invest and grow.’”

The group came to express support for two provisions in Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposed budget: $200 million in new funding to make college education more affordable for in-state students and an additional $2.21 billion in employer contributions to the Virginia’s Retirement System.

In addition, the advocates spoke in favor of two bills, House Bill 486 and Senate Bill 104, which provide incentives for top faculty to come to and remain at Virginia institutions.

The House measure would allow faculty in optional retirement plans to opt-in to the Virginia Retirement System after 10 years of service. The Senate bill would create a 50 percent tuition waiver for children of faculty at state universities and colleges.

Last week’s Higher Education Advocacy Day marked another installment in a long fight for better conditions for faculty and students at Virginia’s colleges and universities, often with the same issues brought up year after year.

It began at 8:30 a.m. Thursday with coffee in the student lounge in VCU’s School of Nursing building. The attendees included professors from various institutions as well as a dozen students from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland.

At 9:15 a.m., the presidents of the VCU Faculty Senate, the Faculty Senate of Virginia and the Virginia chapter of the American Association of University Professors addressed the group. Visits to legislative offices began at 10 a.m.

Dr. Bob Andrews, professor in the VCU School of Business, said former VCU President Eugene Trani and current President Michael Rao support the participation of VCU faculty in the advocacy event.

“We do this with the blessing of our president and administration,” Andrews said. “Certain institutions down [Interstate] 64 have told their professors not to [participate].”

Andrews, former president of the VCU Senate as well as of the Faculty Senate of Virginia, has participated in Higher Education Advocacy Day every year since its start. He noted that, as state employees, public university professors may advocate, not lobby – but some institutions fail to see the distinction between the two actions.

That afternoon, two freshman football players at Randolph-Macon College – Henry Kuhn of Bethesda, Md., and Jesse Knepp of Bucks County, Pa. – accompanied Andrews on visits to a handful of legislative offices, often speaking to aides rather than legislators. Kuhn and Knepp are two of a dozen “Randy-Mac” students enrolled in Dr. Jennifer Bruce’s class on Virginia politics who were making the rounds.

Advocates believe that participation in Higher Education Advocacy Day brings attention to their agenda.

“We’re visible, we’re concerned, we’re interested,” said David Fauri, president of the VCU Faculty Senate and professor in the School of Social Work.

Cummins said the day was successful.

People generally felt pleased with their reception by legislators and aides,” Cummins said.

Nevertheless, professors and students are prepared to return to legislative offices next year. It matters little that they may be raising the same issues in 2013.

“The first date doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get married,” chuckled Andrews.

It may be some time before the General Assembly and participants of Higher Education Advocacy Day marry all of their ideas for improvement of Virginia’s higher education system.

One Professor’s Lament: 7 Years without a Raise

Last January, Dr. Donald N. Rallis, an associate professor of geography at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, wrote Virginia legislators a letter about the challenges and rewards of working in higher education.

Today, the letter remains on the website of the Virginia chapter of the American Association of University Professors, one of the groups participating in Virginia Higher Education Advocacy Day 2012.

Rallis’ letter can be read in its entirety at www.aaup-va.org/SalaryLetter11-6-11.pdf.

Here are excerpts:

“I do not regard my position at UMW simply as a job. It is a vocation to which I committed myself because I believe the critical importance of education, and the value of geography as part of that education. I did not expect to grow wealthy as a college professor, but that is not important to me. What I did expect – as did most of my colleagues – was that I would be compensated by the Commonwealth in a manner commensurate with my qualifications, my hard work, and my job performance. …

“Of my 20 years at UMW, at least seven have passed with no pay raise whatsoever. … At the same time, we are being asked to teach more students and to undertake more professional and community work. And, on top of this, our students are being forced to pay higher tuition.

“This country and Commonwealth are in dire need of the best educated workforce we can possibly create. This is a time when it is critical to attract the best faculty possible to our schools and universities, and to make sure that as many young (and older) people as possible can afford a quality education. We should be increasing expenditure on public education, not cutting it.”