Wednesday, October 13, 2004

RICHMOND (AP) — Key legislative leaders yesterday appeared supportive as the presidents of the three top state universities urged passage of legislation that would give them greater control over their operations and finances.

But the leading Republican lawmakers stopped short of endorsing the charter university proposal pushed by the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and the College of William & Mary.

“The devil’s in the details,” said House Speaker William Howell, Stafford Republican. “I think it’s a great idea worth exploring.”

Some lawmakers and Gov. Mark Warner want to ensure that the proposal won’t hurt Virginia’s other public colleges or hamper statewide higher education initiatives.

“There’s no way we can address these three [universities] in a vacuum,” said Sen. John H. Chichester, the Stafford Republican who heads a legislative subcommittee studying the issue.

The panel held its first meeting yesterday.

Under the charter proposal, Tech, U.Va. and William & Mary would gain greater control over tuition and fees, salaries, procurement and building projects. They also could keep more of the profits generated by university-affiliated enterprises.

In return, they would surrender 10 percent of future new state spending on higher education, potentially freeing up money for other four-year colleges in Virginia. The three universities also would expand their in-state enrollments by a total of 2,500 students.

The presidents insisted they are not trying to create private institutions or escape accountability. But bureaucracy and unpredictable state funding limit their ability to compete with peer research institutions in the United States and around the world, they said.

Mr. Warner, a Democrat whose support is critical if the state relationship with universities is to be changed, generally has taken a position that he must be sold on the idea, or perhaps a modified version.

“He’s going to be hesitant to cede centuries of public university history to save money in the short run,” Ellen Qualls, his press secretary, said yesterday.

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