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NEWS- Casteen's green: Ponying up<span class="Apple-converted-space">&nbsp; </span>$500,000 for employees' children

On September 29, hundreds of alums and friends gathered on the Lawn to watch a fireworks display to celebrate the launch of UVA's $3 billion fundraising campaign. If onlookers thought that was impressive, they weren't ready for the bombshell five days later, on October 4. That's when UVA president John Casteen announced he was donating $500,000 to UVA's cause.

But instead of a lump-sum unrestricted gift, Casteen designated his money for a project he says he's tried to launch since his days as Virginia's Secretary of Education: a scholarship fund for the children of all University employees.

"There are plenty of needs to be met in this campaign, but after thinking and talking about this specific need for the last three years, Betsy [Casteen's wife] and I decided that this would be our personal issue," he said in a release. 

Whether another penny is raised for the scholarship fund, the gift dwarfs what UVA has been able to provide in the past to the offspring of faculty and staff. According to University officials, only 24 children of UVA employees have received awards from Mr. Jefferson's university in the last 11 years– grants totaling just $72,000.

Implementation of the Casteen fund and who will qualify for grants are issues the president has left to the Board of Visitors, according to UVA spokesperson Carol Wood.

"How these scholarships will look depends on how much money is raised," she says. "But this is for all full-time University employees, and the Board will define the other parameters as we go forward."

Wood does explain that the scholarship will not extend to those working on grounds for private companies who work under contract with the University, such as dining employees who get their paychecks from food service company Aramark. 

Among presidents of public universities, a gift of this size has little precedent, but it does seem uncannily similar to an action by one of Casteen's colleagues nearly three years ago. On November 21, 2003, the University of Michigan's Mary Sue Coleman gave $500,000 to her university in anticipation of a big fundraising campaign. Coleman earmarked half the funds for graduate student grants and undergraduate student scholarships. 

According to Paul Fain, a reporter who covers college presidents for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Casteen's charitable gesture comes at a contentious time for Casteen and his colleagues.

"It's not unheard of for presidents to give some portion of their pay to scholarships and other purposes, particularly given there's a controversy over presidential pay of late with the American Association of University Professors tracking levels of presidential pay increases in comparison to faculty," he says. "It's pretty clear the presidential raises have been bigger."

Fain also says the move comes at a good time, recalling that Casteen's salary– the fifth highest in the nation for public university presidents– was called into question by the spring's "Living Wage" campaign.

"This certainly helps on that front when people are looking at his salary," Fain says. "Not to take anything away, but it's a good move from a PR perspective."

The closest precedent to Casteen's proposal exists just a few hours to the south at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That's where UNC's IT director Bruce Egan got the idea two years ago to start up a scholarship fund that would one day be able to provide need-based aid to the children of all UNC employees to attend any one of the UNC system's 16 campuses or North Carolina community colleges. At that time, UNC Chancellor James Moeser gave Egan $200,000 worth of privately raised funds to start the program.

"It's a great grassroots program because it's something we can all agree on from the chancellor to the rank-and-file," he says. "We're trying to make sure our own employees' children have a chance to go to college, and it's a great way for Carolina to help outside its stone walls."

To date, the University of North Carolina Family Scholarship fund has raised approximately $250,000 with which it provides students an annual $2,000 scholarship guaranteed for four years.

Sometimes, however, a public institution can begin such a scholarship program for employee children with one vision of how it will work only to find that the reality is far different. For the last five years, the University of Nebraska system has allowed its employees to transfer the right to take 15 free undergraduate credit hours– or approximately half of one year's regular course load– they already receive as part of their standard compensation package to either their spouses or children. Approximately 200 students enjoy this benefit at a cost of $1 million annually to the system.

But according to Craig Munier, director of financial aid at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, the arrangement has not worked as he and others had originally envisioned it.

"We all had in our minds the people who would benefit most are custodial staff, clerical staff, those lower paid employees," he says. "In practice, we're more often waiving partial tuition for administration and faculty at the other end of the pay scale. It's a benefit as part of the package for faculty and staff and shouldn't be looked at something that improves access to the University of Nebraska."

Asked how UVA can assure that Casteen's proposed program really will open University doors, Munier suggests starting the program with a narrower scope.

"If you want to use it to improve access, means test it, and make it available only to those who demonstrate financial need," he says. "That's one thing that we didn't do here that occurred to me after we implemented our plan."

As UVA continues to raise money for its "Knowledge Is Power" campaign, University officials probably hope they accumulate enough funds for Casteen's project so the decision over who has access to knowledge is one they never have to make.

Casteen hopes to establish a scholarship fund for the children of all UVA employees with his donation.