Three days ago, I criticized University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan for proposing to jack up tuition roughly 20% over the next four years. Clearly, the four-year plan she is submitting to the Board of Visitors champions the interests of the faculty and administration over those of the students. But that doesn’t mean the four-year plan is entirely without merit. In fact, there appears to be some very good thinking in it… assuming the goal of building a world-class university supersedes all others.
In particular, I am intrigued by Sullivan’s proposal to invest more heavily in information technology. Technology is changing the way people “teach, learn, discover, publish and collaborate,” she writes. “The very fabric of inquiry is being altered by data, computation, and emerging tools of digital expression.”
While current IT funding has allowed the university to meet normal levels of service demand, UVa spends only 2.4% of its institutional budget on central IT compared to 3% for doctoral institutions generally. Proposing to dedicate more resources to IT, Sullivan outlines four “areas of strategic focus”:
Enhanced IT security, records management and compliance. The university is poorly positioned to respond to the rapidly change IT threat environment — the network is tested “thousands of times a day” by hackers and automated bots. Over the next four years, Sullivan proposes, UVa should double its investment in this area, with particular emphasis on mobile technology, enhanced security for big data, eDiscovery, intrusion detection and data loss protection.
Advanced networks, big data and digital scholarship. The national Science Foundation is encouraging research institutions to move to 100-gigabyte-per-second networks. The university is seeking partners to offset capital and operational costs which could amount to as much as $10 million up front and $2 million a year. Sullivan also wants $2 million over four years to add 2.6 petabytes of storage (250 gigabytes per faculty member).
UVa has been at the forefront of digital research and scholarship. Two programs deploy “tiger teams,” groups of computational/ digital experts who work intensively with scholars to raise their research to the next computational level. The programs face more demand than they can handle, and Sullivan wants to hire staff at an annual cost of $700,000.
Analytics. Sullivan wants to add a data warehouse to its Oracle financial system in order to conduct more robust reporting and analysis. The move is all the more necessary as the university moves to a more decentralized financial model holding units accountable for revenues and expenses.
Online and technology-enhanced learning. Over the next two years, central IT should hire five employees to support copyright clearance, video production and project management and accessible compliance at an ongoing cost of $500,000. the positions should be located and funded within the academic units because the need for discipline-specific knowledge limits the ability to scale across units.
I don’t know enough about the technology to agree or disagree with the specifics of Sullivan’s plan, but I do believe she is raising important issues.
Much of the discussion about UVa’s technology future has revolved around utilizing online-learning technology to drive down the cost of education, making the university’s world-class faculty more accessible to a larger number of people at less cost. UVa is experimenting with online learning but, judging by this document, Sullivan’s heart resides elsewhere.
The UVa president sees technology as a tool to empower the university’s faculty members, enabling them to shine as scholars and researchers. This vision is sure to warm the hearts of UVa professors — can there be any question why the faculty loves her so?
If UVa’s mission is to provide an affordable, high-quality education for Virginia citizens, Sullivan’s plan will not get us there. If the university’s vision is to build upon its reputation as one of the nation’s elite universities offering a premium-priced product for the cognitive and income elite as the rest of the world embraces online learning, then Sullivan’s plan is just the thing.
I have been critical of Sullivan because I’ve always thought of UVa as a public university that provided me an excellent education for a price that did not bankrupt my parents. But perhaps that idea is outdated. Perhaps UVa should push to become an elite institution. In a future post, I’ll play devil’s advocate and make the case for just such a future.