The Importance of Strategic Investment

It is rarely noted that Virginia has a history of wise strategic investments in higher education: funding that is targeted toward particular opportunities rather than spread around according to formulas. There is a national trend in this direction, as states seek the best possible returns of their higher education investments.

There are numerous examples of strategic investment in our colleges and universities over the past decade:

Targeted toward preventive maintenance, the maintenance reserve fund is one reason why Virginia's physical plants are generally in good repair. Since its inception, the fund has provided $188 million to the institutions. The amount is inadequate but nonetheless very helpful.
Among the many that began around the time of federal tax reform in 1986, this may be the only debt-based equipment leasing program that still flourishes in American higher education. Over a decade, $295 million has been made available for instructional and research technology and equipment.
JMU's new college is one of the most exciting curriculum ventures in American higher education. The lessons learned at this new college could pave the way for curriculum reform that yields the skilled professional of tomorrow: liberally educated and scientifically and technologically literate.
ODU's electronic delivery network is providing services using methods that are changing American higher education. The Virginia colleges and universities that are paying attention will be better prepared when high-volume electronic delivery networks begin to operate nationally and, of course, here. The state needs to monitor the progress of TELETECHNET, and especially whether it is successful in lowering the costs of instruction, so we can determine how to invest in the future.
VIVA, as it is called, enables us to enter into statewide contracts for electronic databases that can be installed at one university and made available to students throughout the state by means of an electronic network that links the colleges and universities. Databases that would have cost $12.5 million if bought by individual institutions have been purchased for statewide use at one-third that cost. Private institutions recently have received foundation funding to participate.
When the state invests strategically in some institutions but not in others, it creates tension within the system of higher education. This tension can be channeled into productive competition among the institutions, with each working to produce better ideas. It also could be channeled into partnerships among institutions and between them and business. This approach is far preferable to the competition that is inevitable otherwise: the raw political struggle among institutions for buildings and projects. Political competition, while inevitable to some extent, guarantees nothing except that money will be spent. Strategic investment, on the other hand, is a large part of what has made Virginia higher education distinctive in the nation.

We should continue this strategy, but in the future we should invest in collaborative efforts among institutions and between higher education and other social institutions. I sense that elected public officials are tired of hearing institutions argue against one another for adequate funding. That may be why the so-called "unified amendment" that contained all the institutions' needs in one package was well received in 1996.

Future strategic investment is more likely to pay off when it supports collaborations like the Microelectronics Consortium, which combines the capacities of six senior institutions and several community colleges to meet the employment needs of a growing new industry in Virginia. Another collaborative effort with good potential is the Graduate Physics Consortium, which has been formed to support the world-class high energy and laser research facilities of the Jefferson Laboratories. Institutions that can work effectively beyond their own boundaries will flourish in the years to come.

The Practical Limits of Planning

Twenty Years of Higher Education in Virginia