Sullivan’s Risky Bet on STEM

by Reed Fawell III

Teresa Sullivan’s proposed four-year financial plan will forever alter the character and mission of the University of Virginia, undermining the financial model that has enabled the university to thrive.  If adopted by the Board of Visitors, the plan will raise student tuition to fund the conversion of the University from a teaching institution to a scientific research institution dependent on the federal government for its future financial success.

The Sullivan Plan will shift the University’s primary mission from teaching to research, with a primary focus on STEM research. Starting July 1, 2103, the University faculty will spend more of its time, talent, resources and collaboration on independent research. Their efforts will concentrate in the fields of science, technology, engineering and medicine. Thus, UVa will become Virginia Tech’s great in-state competitor. And it will vie for federal grant and contractor research dollars with the likes of Johns Hopkins, MIT and Stanford.

This shift of focus will require the university to make major expenditures in heavy infrastructure projects, including the building, purchase and operation of highly complex and sophisticated scientific labs, equipment and buildings. Large additional outlays of funds also will be spent on the training of a whole new generation of scientists, engineers, researchers and other technocrats.  Searching for, hiring, training, setting up and putting in place all these new faculty along with their new disciplines and tools will cost the University even more money. In effect, the University is getting into a new and unexplored business with which it has no experience.

The University will fund this transformation on the backs of the students. Higher tuition will be the primary source of funding to start up, build and, thereafter, enlarge and maintain the STEM concentration. In addition to hiking tuition roughly 20% over four years, she proposes to create a Strategic Investment Fund that will skim monies and borrowing power from University coffers, place that fund outside the control of the Board of Visitors, and vest power over those monies in university administrators and faculty. (For details of the Fund see the last comment to Article “More Big Tuition Hikes ahead for UVa.“)

But that is not all. President Sullivan is betting the farm on the theory that UVa can win an ever-larger share of dwindling federal research grants. This undertaking is risky, if not downright irresponsible. Let’s look at some facts:

  1. Monies available for Federal grants are in rapid decline. Given the nation’s financial crisis, the chances are that this decline will be steep and prolonged.
  2. UVa’s income from federal grants also has been in decline recently. So are its returns on fixed costs from such research. Earlier gains before these declines were largely the result of the Obama administration’s massive stimulus package whose effects are expiring.
  3. UVa to date has been a minor player in the federal grant business.
  4. The competition for federal grants, always fierce, will increase as other universities, far more experienced in seeking government-funded research, vie for pieces of the shrinking pie.

The Strategic Investment Fund, dreamed up by administrators and faculty and controlled by them as well, will deplete the monies available for other needs, putting additional pressure on student tuition and university borrowing generally. If shortfalls occur, the University will be forced to raise student tuition and/or trim other university programs. Under the Sullivan plan, the university administration will be less accountable than ever.

4 Responses to Sullivan’s Risky Bet on STEM

  1. I have some trouble with the argument here.
    Last summer all the pro Dragas critics were citing how UVa had badly fallen back in STEM stuff.

    Now that Sullivan’s moving ahead with STEM, we are told that it is a bad move that will fundamentally change UVA.

    Which is it?

  2. I am not suggesting the STEM research is bad. Nor am I suggesting that UVA should not engage in and promote STEM research. What I am saying is that President Sullivan’s proposal raises some very serious questions. And in my view the proposal on its face is flawed business wise and university wise.

    Thus it raises questions and concerns that need be fully vetted and addressed.

  3. If this is really Sullivan’s plan – God Bless Her! Virginia’s strong showing in high quality public universities does not translate in the STEM world (where I use math for the “m”). Somebody has to step up to the plate and get Virginia on the right foot with regard to STEM education. Should that “somebody” been the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond? Of course. However, our state legislature is utterly and totally worthless so waiting for them is always a mistake. Should Virginia Tech have taken the lead? Maybe but they didn’t.

    Teresa Sullivan – woman of action!

  4. I’m like Peter. Let’s get sorted out what Dragas thought Sullivan should be pursing that she was not and what Sullivan is pursuing now.

    what is Sullivan doing now that is not what Dragas was after originally?

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