UVa: Where’s the Vision?

by James A. Bacon

There has been a lot of coverage of Teresa Sullivan’s resignation as president of the University of Virginia but precious little analysis of why the Board of Visitors lost confidence in her ability to lead the states’ flagship university. Rector Helen E. Dragas made some cryptic remarks to the effect that UVa faces “an existential threat” as the pace of change accelerates in higher education and health care, while alluding obliquely to the legitimization of online teaching by Harvard and MIT. For the past year, she said, the board has conducted ongoing discussions about “developing, articulating and acting on a clear and concrete strategic vision.”

Dragas and other BoV board members have refused to offer specifics on how Sullivan differed, or fell short, from the board’s expectations, presumably out of a desire to allow her to leave the university with her dignity intact.

That still leaves Virginians wondering what “difference in philosophy,” as Sullivan politely put it, could have precipitated her departure. Because no one is talking, we can only speculate. I had hoped to find information in UVa documents that provide background and context for the controversy but I have been defeated in my efforts. After several hours spent searching Google and the University of Virginia website, I could not find a recent analysis of the University of Virginia’s strengths and challenges, much less an updated strategic plan. The closest thing I could find is a 2006-2012 Six Year Plan, which apparently is six years old. (If I am missing something, please let me know.)

Neither could I find anything in Sullivan’s speeches and publications that provided any special insight into her thinking. The most relevant document I could find was the President’s Report 2010-11, which provides a broad overview for a general audience.

I don’t know how representative that report is of Sullivan’s mindset but it comes across as a Business As Usual document. Under the heading, “Funding Global Excellence,” Sullivan acknowledged the many generous gifts to the university the previous year and wrote of raising more money for building renovations and expansions. Under “Preparing Students to Shape the Future,” she listed stand-out student accomplishments and discussed how students were working together to address social issues. Under “A Faculty that Inspires Learning,” she enumerated faculty awards and recognitions.

One section headed, “Pioneering New Models of Education,”proved disappointing. Never mentioning the online education revolution that threatens to disrupt the higher education sector, the report dwells upon the use of evidence to improve teaching and learning, education beyond the classroom (internships, independent studies, and the like), interdisciplinary programs, and various miscellaneous initiatives. In other sections of the report, Sullivan addresses scientific research, the U.Va Health System and student athletics, none of it terribly revealing about how the university will adapt to fiscal, technological and demographics changes.

I could find only one other document, the minutes of the February 2012 Board of Visitors meeting, in which Sullivan has addressed strategic issues in any depth this year.  In that report to the board, Sullivan led off with a discussion of the Living Wage Campaign and efforts to raise compensation for lower-income university employees. Then, setting the stage for other presentations to the board, she highlighted three themes: “Student learning,” including global involvement and fostering success in learning; “financial accountability and prudence,” including a 10-year athletics plan; and the “necessity for balance” in serving the university’s diverse constituencies.

In other references, Sullivan discussed the challenge of recruiting and retaining a world-class faculty. And in a widely publicized paper, “Higher Education as the Engine of the American Economy,” she called for more federal research spending.

Here are some seemingly relevant topics where I found nothing:

  • How will online teaching affect higher education generally and the University of Virginia specifically?
  • How can UVa increase faculty productivity?
  • How does administrative overhead at UVa compare to that of peer institutions?
  • How, other than extracting more money from the state and federal government, can the university make college more affordable?

To be fair, I couldn’t find any evidence of the thinking of Board of Visitors members either… with one small exception. In a February meeting Mark Kington, vice rector and chair of an ad hoc committee, AccessUVa, discussed aid optimization and a soon-to-be-launched pricing and positioning study. Among other topics he discussed was ascertaining the ratio of in-state to out-of-state students. “Increases in the number of in-state students through the use of increased financial aid awards could help increase diversity, improve in-state academic quality and increase net tuition revenue, but the gains are marginal,” summarized the minutes. Admitting more out-of-state students could increase revenue, promote diversity and improve overall academic quality, but that would call for a different approach to financial aid.

Kington also discussed a study to determine what factors most influence a student’s decision to apply to and matriculate from the university: academic reputation, quality of faculty, sense of history and tradition, affordability, availability of financial aid, quality of faculty-student relationships, etc. The study, he noted, also would test interest in several new initiatives designed to appeal to students. Results of the study, Kington said, “should lead to thinking about policy goals.”

Sullivan, Dragas and other board members may have well articulated thoughts about UVa’s future, but they are darned hard to find. There are very few clues in the public record as to how Sullivan’s philosophy might have differed from that of the board. One thing for sure, there is no document outlining the “clear and concrete vision” for UVa that Dragas would like to see. If you want to know where Virginia’s premier university, a $2.5 billion enterprise, is heading, there is at present no way to find out.

Update: The Washington Post has uncovered an “academic strategy” memo that Sullivan wrote to Dragas and Kington. In it, she identified five strategically important issues: an outdated budgetary model, a wave of faculty retirements and challenges hiring replacements, a reputation gap (Virginia’s reputation greater than warranted by the facts), fragile top-ten standing in several professional schools and academic departments, and an opportunity to reallocate resources from first- and second-year courses to third- and fourth-year courses.

12 Responses to UVa: Where’s the Vision?

  1. You know.. we’re expressing “SHOCK” that one of these board actually operates this way. Why? We’ve watched MWAA do this and CTB and up in Fairfax, the Fairfax Water Authority…

    this is NORMAL and is the way these boards were actually designed to operate when they were set up.

    Now we all act like it’s an anomaly. Nope. It’s SOP…

    • Boards do what their charters and by-laws let them do. If the charters and bylaws call for transparent processes then there are transparent processes.

      Apparently, the UVA BoV charter and bylaws allow for the creation of an “existential threat” sufficient to fire the relatively new president without the governor, General Assembly or any other Virginian (outside of the UVA BoV) knowing about this existential threat.

      Regarding the Fairfax Water Authority – if you issue is the effort to set rates for Fairfax County residents served by other jurisdictions – you are all wet. That action was well deserved and had the full support of most residents of the county.

  2. Jim:

    Just use your FOIA rights to get to the truth. After all, UVA is subject to FOIA. Unless you want to know what the BoV is doing or what taxpayer funded research is all about.

    TICSIR – The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond.

  3. I likely was “all wet” on the Water Authority. mea culpa.

    But most appointed authorities and boards created in Va seem to lack the same fundamental safeguards that we have for elected governance – the most obvious failing is the ability of those who are affected by decisions to extract accountability from those making decisions.

    They act if they are immune because they are, in fact.

  4. Recently, the Fairfax Water board has been very transparent and following the rules, as far as I can tell. It has not always been this way.
    A big problem is that the media rarely examine what the boards do except to cheer spending more money that equals progress.

  5. Larry, the big surprise came not to the Fairfax Water board, but to the city council of Falls Church. Falls Church provides water service to a significant number of Fairfax County residences and businesses. 92% of its customers are outside city limits. The city council are big spenders, but don’t have the tax base to fund its spending. The council has been raiding its water reserves to spend lavishly. The courts told the city it could not do this. Water charges above cost constitute an unconstitutional, extra-territorial tax. The city ignored the courts and proposed even higher water rates, in part, to rebuild its reserves.
    Fairfax County elected to impose rate regulation for county residents. The city sued. The city is trying to sell its water system to fund local spending. Fairfax Water has proposed a merger that would cut water rates by 1/3 for city water customers, including city residents; give city customers access to two more water sources; and take over city water debt.
    The city wants to sell to a commercial water provider to fund programs with the proceeds. State law prohibits a sale to a private entity without Fairfax County approval, which is not going to happen. Also, the city gets its water from the Washington Aqueduct, which is operated by the Corps of Engineers. Federal law prohibits them from selling water to any private company.
    That is the story in a nutshell.

  6. Jim – the takeaway from this seems to be that while the central conflict appears to be a difference in Vision (ostensibly a long term plan for the University’s guidance) between the BOV and Sullivan, from what I can tell, NEITHER party has ever articulated what their particular vision even is. Frankly, I’m left wondering if either party ever formulated one in the first place.

    I’d feel much better about this if there were some record articulating where the parties wanted to take the school over the next 10 to 20 years. And maybe that’s where the problem lies.

    This mess does force our hands on the discussion of what direction should a major “public” university take in the new realities of technology, the economy (both micro – the ability of students to pay, and macro – what skills should students be getting to contribute eventually to the work force), and levels of public and private funding. I think we all can agree that the “business as usual” model isn’t sustainable over the next 50 years, and that people in charge need to be planning now to make UVA the right kind of school for students not yet born.

    Was Sullivan that person? Maybe, maybe not. But neither is the current BOV. Maybe they’re all guilty for failing to define a 20-year plan (frightening that the last long range plan has already expired without any update); all too easy for the BOV to fire Sullivan and point the finger at her.

    • Neal, You and I have reached the same conclusion. UVa has no long-term plan. It has no comprehensive vision. It’s just out there raising money, building new buildings, hiring new faculty and initiating new programs without a clear sense of where it’s competitive advantages and disadvantages are, and without any clear idea of what it’s trying to become. If a document exists outlining that vision, I cannot find it online — which is inexcusable in itself.

  7. “how the university will adapt to fiscal, technological and demographics changes.”

    One might add “intellectual” and “educational” to that list. Unless one were a real estate developer.

  8. “competitive advantages and disadvantages are.”

    But what do you think they are competing for? Market share? Shareholder dividends? Aren’t you a bit confused?

    • Market share is a good place to start. Let’s see where a majority of Americans are seeking their education in 10 years. Traditional higher ed is obscenely expensive. Alternatives are emerging,. All the innovation is occurring online.

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