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Business-Higher Education Council giving key support

By Ralph Byers, director of government relations

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 18 - February 2, 1995

The current General Assembly session has seen the emergence of a new force in support of higher education: the Business--Higher Education Council. Formed over the past year by a group of concerned corporate executives, the council has played a key role in advocating support for higher education and developing a unified approach among the traditionally independent public colleges and universities.

Under the leadership of John T. "Til" Hazel, a prominent Northern Virginia businessman, the council has made recommendations for support of higher education, communicated them to the governor and General Assembly, and spoken in support of higher education. With funds raised from members of the council, an advertisement titled "What's Happening to Virginia's Public Colleges and Universities Would make Thomas Jefferson Cry!" was placed in major newspapers around the state (see accompanying illustration).

The council, which is composed of approximately 40 CEO's of Virginia corporations, met several times in the past year to review issues concerning higher education. The council has discussed such issues as tenure, faculty workload, restructuring, and appropriate levels of support for higher education.

Based on its discussions, the council adopted a recommendation for funding higher education in 1995-96 that paralleled the recommendations of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). The recommendation of approximately $53 million included $14.7 million to restore cuts already in the budget for the second year of the biennium; $14 million to begin restoring faculty salaries to a competitive level; and $25 million to support institution-specific projects in support of restructuring efforts, such as instructional technology. These recommendations were communicated to the governor by Hazel in the fall.

When the governor's budget was unveiled in December, it contained further reductions to higher education funding of approximately $47 million, and none of the Business--Higher Education Council's other recommendations. In response, in early January the Business--Higher Education Council decided to advocate its recommendations with the members of the General Assembly.

The council developed a funding package of $98 million for higher education to present to the General Assembly--this recommendation includes restoration of the governor's cuts (including Cooperative Extension and Research), restoration of the $14.7 million for the second year, $14 million for competitive faculty salaries, $13 million for institution-specific projects, plus funds for medical education and community-college workforce training. Hazel presented these recommendations to the Appropriations and Finance Committees at their public hearing on January 16, saying that "If Virginia is to remain open for business, so must its colleges and universities."

In an unprecedented action, the Business--Higher Education Council recommendations were submitted as a unified budget amendment co-patroned by the responsible subcommittees of the Appropriations and Finance Committees. This unified amendment contains significant funding for Virginia Tech, including restoration of funding for Cooperative Extension and Research, including the seafood program; funds for faculty and staff salaries; restoration of the second-year General Fund reduction; restoration of the Water Center, the Commonwealth Center for Applied Mathematics, and the Center for Organization and Technological Advancement; as well as funding that would be lost through cuts in the Eminent Scholars Program, the Center for Innovative Technology, and maintenance reserve funds.

While it is too early to predict how much of the Business--Higher Education Council's recommendations will be adopted by the General Assembly, there is no doubt that the council has brought a most welcome degree of external support for higher education and an unusual display of unity among the institutions. It can only be hoped that the council will continue and increase its efforts in the coming years.

Virginia Tech's representatives on the council include Cliff Cuthchins of Norfolk, former rector of the Board of Visitors; Henry Dekker of Blacksburg, current vice rector of the Board of Visitors; and three businessmen from Roanoke: Haywood Fralin, CEO of Medical Facilities of America and current member of the Board of Visitors; Thomas Robertson, CEO of Carilion Health Systems and member of the Board of the Virginia Tech Foundation; and Bittle Porterfield, president of Rice Management Company.