The idea of privatizing the College of William and Mary has been floated around as a panacea for the school’s problems almost since the College went public in 1906. That’s unlikely to happen, however, anytime soon, for a number of reasons.
First, the commonwealth of Virginia simply has no good incentive to want to “selling” the College back to itself. The state’s current deal is just too good. In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, the commonwealth will contribute less than 13 percent of the College’s operating budget, down from nearly 50 percent in 1980.
Regardless of the size of the financial contribution, the College is an important political tool for state legislators. The Virginia General Assembly gets to dictate important decisions made by the College, like the all-important in-state to out-of-state student ratio. Virginia legislators can then turn to their constituents and say there are spots guaranteed at a top-tier university that is both close to home and charging a bargain-basement tuition.
The second big hurdle is determining what exactly the cost of the deal would be, if, for some reason, the Commonwealth did decide to sell the College back. To determine that price, the College would have to figure out what it would take to reacquire the buildings from the state.
What are the buildings of the College worth? To anyone in the College family, the Sir Christopher Wren Building is a priceless, national treasure. But removed from the College context, how would the real estate market value the bricks and mortar that make up Wren?
I spoke with Dean of Admission Henry Broaddus about this question. He mused that while he, personally, views Wren’s value as incalculable, “the restrictions associated with being a historic building make it ill-suited for most commercial ventures” that would help the College to recoup cost and generate profit.
If there were an opening for privatization, might the College find a partner that already has the requisite financial resources? If local tourism picked up to its previous highs, the College might already have that partner next door in the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
While a merger would be extremely challenging, there could be the potential for the operating boards of both the Foundation and the College to work together to the common benefit of both institutions. In this model, the Foundation would buy all the buildings, and a joint Colonial Williamsburg-William and Mary Foundation would govern a private College of William and Mary.
Colonial Williamsburg might benefit if they knew how to properly utilize the campus in the summer to generate more revenue. For example, adult college programs for retirees or alumni with housing and classroom experiences that take advantage of both the College’s resources and the Colonial Williamsburg experience could make for a more lucrative tourism package.
However, this and other similar proposals for privatization, while interesting to speculate on, raise as many questions as they answer.