by James A. Bacon
As long ago as last October, if today’s Washington Post article is to be believed, leaders of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors had lost faith in the willingness of President Teresa Sullivan to “consider dramatic program cuts in the face of dwindling resources and to approach the school with the bottom-line mentality of a corporate executive.” Convinced that she was not the right person to lead the university through tumultuous times, Rector Helen Dragas, Vice Rector Mark Kington and Peter Kiernan, a former Goldman Sachs executive who led the foundation for the business school, embarked upon a campaign to remove her.
The Dragas-led group coalesced around the sentiment that Sullivan was moving too slowly. How so? Unfortunately, no one’s talking. Other than making vague but unsatisfying statements about the university’s perilous condition, Dragas has remained steadfastly silent, even as the university community has erupted into a uproar. The only meaningful detail to come to light is Sullivan’s reluctance to trim marginal departments such as the classics or German.
To gain a deeper understanding of the issues involved, we must consult the “Academic Strategy” memo that Sullivan wrote Dragas and Kington on May 3. The memo highlights how the UVa president viewed the challenges facing the university’s academic division and outlined an approach for dealing with them. Given that Sullivan has been even more tight lipped than Dragas, that document is almost the only source we have that illuminates her strategic thinking — or sheds light on the source of conflict with the board barely a month before her departure.
The memo shows a university president who is candid and perceptive yet deferential to the faculty and focused on the university’s reputation. There are several very good ideas in the memo, but nothing to suggest that Sullivan was willing to rock the boat. While board members saw the university facing a fiscal crisis coinciding with a technological tipping point in online education, Sullivan’s proposals would have taken years to implement and bear fruit.
By way of background, the University had been guided by the strategic plans, Virginia 2020, dating back to 2002, and the Commission on the Future of the University (COFU), published in 2008. Sullivan notes in the memo that she had been instructed upon her hiring not do a strategic plan for the academic program. Faculty were said to be fatigued and discouraged by the lack of follow-through. It is not clear from the contents why Sullivan was writing the memo, but one can infer that it came in response to queries from Dragas and Kington.
One of the more interesting observations in the memo is Sullivan’s statement that the university “suffers from a reputation gap.” Most institutions believe they aren’t getting the recognition they deserve. Sullivan worried that UVa didn’t deserve the reputation it had — “in a number of critical areas we are reputed to be better than we actually are.” More significantly from a strategic perspective, the university’s areas of strength are in the humanities and professional schools, while the priority is to build science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs. “It must be candidly admitted that some of the fields that bring us the greatest distinction are not those in which most people would today invest (e.g., Spanish, English, Religious Studies).” Moreover, the reputation for excellence is derived from a small number of exceptional faculty, rendering it vulnerable should they retire or be recruited.
The competition for top academic talent is intense. As Sullivan noted, “A recent offer included a salary increase of more than $100K, subsidized housing and school tuition for dependents, the ability to hire two or three additional faculty of the person’s choosing, and the creation of a new research center as a personal research playground for the former Virginia faculty member.”
In Sullivan’s analysis, the University of Virginia occupies an awkward middle ground between large and small.
Our competitor public institutions are typically much larger, and we have foregone the economies of scale they can achieve in favor of an emphasis on smaller courses and closer interaction. Our competitor private institutions are typically smaller, but do not face the political pressures to grow in the service of the Commonwealth that we feel. One result of our scale is that our departments are typically smaller than those at most research universities (including privates). Rankings are known to correlate with size. Thus, our choice to remain relatively small means that collaboration across the Grounds – the ability to achieve a critical mass of faculty in some important problem areas — will be a necessary ingredient in our continued academic recognition.
Beyond the reputation gap and the fragile top-ten standing of leading schools and departments, Sullivan identified other strategic issues: Continue reading.