I hear from lots of readers across Virginia. Often they tell us what a great job we’re doing. Aww, shucks. Sometimes they don’t.
Usually, though, when we write about some project in rural Virginia, the response is uniformly positive, generally along the lines of “Wow, I didn’t know that was happening” or “That’s great; more places ought to do that.”
So I’ll confess that I was quite surprised by some of the reaction I got to a recent column about how Gov. Glenn Youngkin has proposed a budget amendment to fund a study of whether the University of Virginia’s College at Wise should become a research university. Instead of being showered by comments about how this could help spin off a “Silicon Hollow” in Virginia’s coalfields (to borrow a phrase that Kentucky has tried to market for its attempts to create a high-tech economy in Appalachia), I heard from some readers who thought this was, well, absolute nuts.
Their concerns were three-fold: that making UVA Wise a research university would be too expensive, and that the school is too remote or too small to justify that expense.
Let’s take a look at those three objections.
UVA Wise Chancellor Donna Price Henry estimates the startup costs of becoming a research university at about $100 million, plus $50 million to $90 million for a building, so that’s $150 million to $190 million. And then about $15 million a year in continuing costs. Southwest legislators seem to assume the study will come back positive. State Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, and Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, have both introduced amendments to the state budget to ask for $45 million for a research facility.
Whether that’s too much to spend is partly a philosophical decision people have to make. The likely return on that state investment is also presumably something a study would address. That’s not something I’m in a position to quantify. I’ll just point out that the goal of becoming a research university is not to create some new ivory tower but to help jump-start a new economy in Virginia’s coal country – research universities are known for spinning off startups. The question is really whether this money would be better spent on something else that would attempt to accomplish the same end – and whether a true startup economy can flourish without a research university at its heart. Philosophically, does Virginia want to try to create that kind of economy in Southwest Virginia? If not, why not? If so, is there a way to do it without making UVA Wise a research university?
The concern voiced by the people I heard from (all of whom were west of the Blue Ridge, if you’re curious) was that Wise is too remote to attract the top-flight researchers necessary for a research university. This seems a legitimate concern. I’ve heard the same concern voiced from time to time about Virginia Tech – that Blacksburg is too small and too far away from major metros to be able to attract certain talent. All things are relative.
Can we quantify remoteness? Here’s one way: the distance from an interstate. Wise is 49 miles from Interstate 81, according to Google Maps. That’s not necessarily the best measure, though. Lynchburg is farther away from an interstate but we don’t think of Lynchburg as remote. Part of what the critics are hitting at is that the coalfields feel psychologically remote. Ultimately, you need people who are comfortable living in Wise (town population 3,543). That will rule out some people, just as the prospect of living in Blacksburg or Roanoke or Lynchburg rules out others.
A better question might be whether there are other research universities in remote locations. I could answer that here, but it might be best to hold off until we address the final criticism, that UVA Wise is too small. There are some research universities in what might seem remote locations. State College, Pennsylvania, the home of Penn State, feels remote to some but it also has an enrollment north of 88,000. What we really want to know is whether there are other small research universities in remote locations. Before we answer that, let’s look to see what other small research universities there are.
UVA Wise has an enrollment of 1,737. Is that simply too small for a research university? As sportscasters say, let’s go to the board.
Research universities are classified according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, run by the American Council on Education. 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. (You can think of these the way you might think of Division I, Division II and Division III in college sports.) The phrase Research III is being phased out in favor of “Doctoral/Professional Universities.” Whatever. The ACE lists 187 schools in that category.
American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts, has an enrollment of 1,223.
Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, has an enrollment of 1,417.
Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, has an enrollment of 1,018.
Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi, has an enrollment of 1,713.
Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia, has an enrollment of 1,427.
Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa, has an enrollment of 927.
At this point, I’m just through the A’s and B’s. This should be enough to show that yes, there are many research universities that are as small as UVA Wise – or smaller.
We still have some other things to check, though. Just because a school is classified as a research university doesn’t guarantee it actually attracts a lot of research dollars. Conveniently, the National Science Foundation publishes a list of universities ranked by research dollars. The most recent list is for 2020. The top-ranked research university that year was Johns Hopkins University, followed by the University of Michigan. Four of the top 10 schools are in California. The University of Virginia that year ranked 44 and Virginia Tech 49. That’s not what we want to know, though. What we want to know is whether any small schools – schools the size of UVA Wise – make the list.
Yes, they do. They’re not high on the list but they are on there.
In the Top 500, I counted at least 13 schools with enrollments roughly the size of UVA Wise or smaller. They ranged in size from Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma, with an enrollment of 1,894, down to Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, with an enrollment of 844. The rankings ranged from Langston at 306 down to Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, at 500 (and an enrollment of 1,194).
This establishes that there are certainly lots of other schools about the size of UVA Wise that are research universities. But are there any that size that are in what might be deemed remote locations? I’ve never heard of Baldwin City, Kansas, but it’s about 45 miles outside Kansas City, so Baker University is in the outer orbit of a major metro. Many of the other schools I’ve cited above are in communities much larger than Wise.
So let’s take another look at that ACE list of schools.
As I noted before, defining “remote” is maybe more art than science but there are at least two schools that are clearly comparable.
Lincoln Memorial University has the classification that UVA Wise aspires to. It’s also not that far away, just south of the Cumberland Gap in Harrogate, Tennessee. It’s also about the same size, with 1,560 undergraduates.
Likewise, the University of Pikeville across the state line in Pikeville, Kentucky, has the same research classification, and an enrollment of 1,110 undergraduates.
Notice I specified undergraduates; both schools have larger total enrollments because they have graduate students – something UVA Wise doesn’t have yet, but will once it adds the master’s programs that are a prerequisite for achieving research status.
So, yes, here are two other schools of comparable size and comparable location – both in Central Appalachia – that are research universities. Based on that, UVA Wise’s quest does not seem an outlier.