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What Incremental Change Looks Like
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. What were the key points of disagreement? 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 Classics and 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, only a month before her departure, 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 illuminates her strategic thinking -- and thus, the source of conflict -- 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 the 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:
The budgetary model. The highly centralized decision-making of the current model frustrates planning, innovation and collaboration while hardening departmental silos. Those silos inhibit the collaboration that's required to overcome the university's lack of scale. "A key strategic initiative of my administration is to implement a budget system that enables multi-year academic strategic planning, incentivizes cross-Grounds activities that will pull together the collective strengths of our schools, and a model that will provide, to the extent possible, long term financial stability for the University."
Faculty hiring. The university expects a wave of retirements over the next five to 10 years. "Every institution says that it prizes teaching, but the University really does. Virginia's unique undergraduate experience cannot be maintained with the average PhD being produced in American universities," Sullivan wrote. The university has an opportunity to innovate -- "perhaps with teaching postdoctoral fellowships or residencies that would allow future faculty to hone their teaching abilities just as the traditional post-doctoral fellowship allows young scientists to hone their research abilities."
Curricular issues. The university lavishes resources on first-year and second-year courses, even though an increasing number of students have already completed portions of the lower-division curriculum by means of Advanced Placement, IB transfer credits and dual enrollment with community colleges. Wrote Sullivan: "We have a great opportunity here to reallocate scarce faculty resources toward the third- and fourth-year courses where there are no substitutes for their expertise."
Sullivan's big idea is to promote collaboration across university departments -- in effect, to create more interdisciplinary studies. (This is a strategy that has been pursued effectively at George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University, among others.) Bridging the silos can compensate for the relatively small size of the university's departments by enlarging the circle of a professor's professional peers. Moreover, the interaction of disciplines can be intellectually stimulating -- and fostering an intellectually stimulating environment can help recruit and retain talented faculty.
Sullivan cited several initiatives underway to "develop intellectual areas in novel ways": The Quantitative Collective across the social sciences, humanities, mathematics and statistics; Sustainability (presumably environmental) across colleges and schools; and Contemplative Studies, mind-body interactions explored through humanities, social sciences, and medicine.
"The Center for Contemplative Studies, for which we had a soft launch over Founder’s weekend, is an example of a cross-Grounds program that brings distinction to the University," she said. "This was an area in which we had great individual excellence, but now are able to realize a footprint that is larger than any one of the contributing colleges/schools."
In outlining her vision of UVa ten years from now, Sullivan wrote:
Faculty will find their teaching energizing, and many teachers will find themselves in high demand among the students. Some of the most popular majors will be in areas that were not commonly taught only ten years earlier. Hybrid courses will be common for introductory courses, providing online resources for students to review material (such as math modules) and also providing asynchronous means to complete the introductory courses that other students will have completed in high school. The new faculty will teach relatively more third- and fourth-year students than today’s faculty do. Faculty will interact frequently with students through vertical research teams and other co-curricular activities, and UVA will be known for the close interaction among students and faculty.
It's an appealing vision. And, it is important to note, the vision does incorporate an increased role for technology in lower-level courses. Moreover, Sullivan's vision directly addresses one of UVa's major challenges, how to recruit and retain faculty -- and it does so without throwing huge amounts of money at star faculty.
So, what's to criticize?
Sullivan is tinkering on the margins. The improvements she suggests are evolutionary in nature. She skates by the necessity of making hard choices. Her plan threatens no internal constituencies. For the faculty, it's all gain and no pain. Other than her interesting idea to reallocate resources from lower-level classes to upper-level classes, she never addresses faculty productivity. The idea of requiring faculty to teach more courses never comes up. The idea of dropping or consolidating departments of marginal value is not to be seen. The university may be facing relentless fiscal pressure, but the idea of cutting costs does not appear to be in the president's conceptual armature.
As for the really big issue -- how will the University of Virginia will position itself in a world in which an increasing amount of learning takes place online? -- Sullivan has very little to offer beyond the idea of integrating technology into lower-level courses. Surely there is a role for a traditional residential campus in the brave new digital world but there there is no sign in this memo that Sullivan has figured out what it is, other than what it already is.
Faculty productivity and the revolution in online education are fundamental. They must be addressed.
"The world is simply moving too fast" for the current "model of incremental, marginal change," said Helen Dragas in explaining the decision to request Sullivan's resignation. Sullivan's "Academic Strategy" memo is the very model of incremental, marginal change. It is easy to understand why the Board of Visitors concluded that she was not the person for the job.