The University of Virginia's College at Wise. Courtesy of UVa Wise.

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When Ralph Northam was running for governor in 2017, he proposed that the University of Virginia’s College at Wise be turned into a research university.

Specifically, he thought it should be a research university focusing on renewable energy. His rationale: Research universities are economic engines that create spinoff companies, the way Virginia Tech has helped spawn a whole Corporate Research Center full of startups.

“It’s a great opportunity to have expertise in solar and wind and energy storage,” Northam said then. “If you bring in talent, big talent, talent attracts other talent,” and that would also help reverse the coalfields’ population decline.

In one of the gubernatorial debates that fall, Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie vied with one another to see who would propose the most for UVA Wise.

Northam won and, well, um, nothing really happened on that proposal.

Now Gov. Glenn Youngkin has quietly proposed a budget amendment that would set in motion a study of whether the school in Wise County should, indeed, become a research university. He has proposed $500,000 for a feasibility study, with the results to be reported by June 30, 2024.

Let’s take a closer look at what this means.

Research universities come in three types based on a classification devised by the Carnegie Foundation and widely known as the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, or simply the Carnegie Classification.

Research I universities are doctoral-granting universities with “very high research activity” as measured by 10 different indicators. Research II universities are doctoral-granting universities with “high research activity” measured by those same indicators. A Research III university is engaged in a “moderate” level of research and need not grant doctoral degrees, only master’s degrees. If you’re familiar with the sports classifications of Division I, Division II and Division III, this is the research equivalent. Both Virginia and Virginia Tech are Research I schools.

Here’s where that six-year delay between Northam’s proposal and Youngkin’s proposal becomes more understandable. In 2017, UVA Wise didn’t offer any master’s degrees. It was one of just two state-supported four-year schools that didn’t, Virginia Military Institute being the other one. UVA Wise still doesn’t offer master’s degrees but soon will; its proposal to add master’s programs is now pending from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Both government and academia move slowly. Practically speaking, Northam couldn’t have done what Youngkin just did because the groundwork wasn’t in place. Soon it will be.

So what kind of research might UVA Wise engage in, what would it cost and what would it mean for the region?

For the first two questions, I spoke to the school’s chancellor, Donna Price Henry, and its vice chancellor, Shannon Blevins.

“Our goal is to bring in a third-party consultant who would work with us to identify those opportunities,” Henry said, but there are some obvious possibilities. 

The school is already doing some research with its parent school in Charlottesville on sustainability issues dealing with energy and the environment. “We know we have faculty doing research in biodiversity,” Henry said. “That seems a natural area to begin.” Given its location, UVA Wise might also look at issues dealing with aging and addiction. “As UVA begins to expand in the biotech sector and new drug research they’ll be looking for clinical sites,” she said. Perhaps UVA Wise would qualify for that kind of biotech research.

The cost of becoming a research university is more quantifiable. Henry estimates the cost of a building at $50 million to $90 million, and startup costs at $100 million. After that, probably $15 million a year; the expectation is that researchers would bring in much of their salaries through grants.

The real question (at least as I see it) is what the economic impact would be of having a research university, even a small-scale one, in the coalfields.

A study by the George W. Bush Presidential Center found that the number of spinoff companies generated by university research has more than doubled over the past decade. “A university’s research and teaching work also spills over to its local economy by producing STEM graduates who frequently opt to stay in the area for the long term,” the study found. No great surprise there, as anyone within range of Virginia Tech can attest. 

The only potential downside is one of scale: The Bush study finds, again not surprisingly, that research universities in metro areas produce more economic impact than those in smaller communities – and that research universities in communities with large immigrant populations produce more economic impact than those in communities with smaller immigrant populations. (Think immigrants with technical degrees coming in with visas and green cards, not unskilled immigrants.) The study concludes that “America’s long-term economic growth demands a stepped-up commitment to promoting the innovation impact of the nation’s top-tier research universities and other research institutions.” As a newcomer, UVA Wise would surely fit under that “other” category. By that measure, becoming a research university is practically a patriotic act.

Now the opportunity: There are few research universities in Appalachia. Of course, Appalachia is often an elastic concept. The University of Tennessee in Knoxville qualifies and Virginia Tech certainly qualifies, but they sit at the edge of Appalachia, not necessarily square in it. There are no research universities in Virginia’s coalfields, nor any in eastern Kentucky. West Virginia has two: Marshall University on its western border and West Virginia University near its northern edge. This seems a market opportunity to create a research institution in the heart of Central Appalachia.

Colleges of all sizes face challenges with enrollment for demographic reasons – simply put, falling birth rates mean fewer college-age students. That means UVA Wise’s enrollment challenges – 1,737 students in fall 2022, down from a high of 2,420 in fall 2012 – are by no means unique. (The school’s enrollment remains higher than it was in the 1990s when the student body was often in the low-1,400 range.) The Bush Center suggests that a research component serves as a kind of insurance against some enrollment declines. “The economic aftershocks of the COVID-19 crisis threaten the financial models that underpin America’s world-leading universities, raising urgent questions for policy makers,” the Bush study says. “But institutions that build competitive research operations around life science, biotechnology, and other vital STEM fields are likely to be successful in overcoming growing challenges to traditional ways of doing business in higher education.”

Other proposals the governor has made will get more attention now but a decade or so from now we might look back on this as a truly transformational moment.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at