Helen Dragas

James A. Bacon

University of Virginia Rector Helen E. Dragas gets it. Explaining the Board of Visitors’ differences with departing President Teresa Sullivan, she told university deans and vice presidents that Virginia’s flagship educational institution can not continue to conduct business as usual.

“The pace of change in higher education and in health care has accelerated greatly in the past two  years,” Dragas said. Higher education in the United States stands “on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions,” referring, most likely, to the decision by Harvard and M.I.T. to begin delivering free online courses through a nonprofit partnership, edX.

The university, said Dragas, needs a new strategic direction as it faces challenges that “are truly an existential threat to the greatness of U.Va.” (See the Times-Dispatch coverage of her remarks.)

As we’ve been saying on this blog for a couple of years now, disruptive change is coming to higher education, a sector of the economy badly in need of disruption. The business model is broken. Administrations are bloated, faculty are protected by tenure, innovation is lagging, costs are out of control and tuitions are soaring. Students and graduates have accumulated $1 trillion in student-loan debt. For the first time forever, parents, students and outside observers are questioning whether a college education is worth what you have to pay to get it. While the University of Virginia may be less guilty of inflated costs and predatory tuition hikes than many other institutions, it will get caught like all the others in the perfect storm of technological advance, consumer revolt and shrinking state government support.

Facing financial pressure and hard decisions on resource allocation, the university needs a new sense of direction, Dragas said.

Writes the T-D:

In her remarks, Dragas said “compensation of our valued faculty and staff has continued to decline in real terms, and we acknowledge the tremendous task ahead of making star hires” as eminent faculty members retire.

“We see no bright lights on the financial horizon as we face limits on tuition increases, an environment of declining federal support, state support that will be flat at best, and pressures on health care payors,” she said.

In an email notice to alumni, Dragas said the board for the past year has had “ongoing discussions about the importance of developing, articulating and acting on a clear and concrete strategic vision.”

She said the board “believes that in the rapidly changing and highly pressurized external environment in both health care and in academia, the university needs to remain at the forefront of change.”

Sullivan did not elaborate upon her view of UVa’s strategic imperatives, noting only that there was “a philosophical difference of opinion.”

I am speculating now, but it seems likely that Sullivan did not share the board’s sense of urgency. As products of a pampered industry that has been largely immune to the traumas and turmoil of the recession-racked private sector, many university administrators cannot imagine how quickly their ivory towers can come tumbling down. Faculty and administrators have no idea of the frustration and rage that has been building against their bastions of privilege and how eagerly consumers will desert them for a better value proposition — even if it is delivered online.

Dragas, the 50-year-old CEO of the Dragas Companies, a Virginia Beach real estate developer, sees what’s coming, even if cosseted university administrators do not.

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  1. larryg Avatar

    so far – this appears to be a “personal” philosophy issue. Has the BofV previously weighed in on this? Surely there are multiple entities within UVA in addition to the BofV that have expressed strategic vision thoughts.

    the way this is being reported …now with Jim’s tome added.. leaves one with questions about what the REST of the University and BofV thinks.

    Is this the beginning of a fairly public (and probably healthy) brouhaha or is this a “breach” of “inside UVA” dialogue?

    It’s very, very hard for me to believe that when Sullivan was vetted two short years ago that such a huge chasm existed between her and BofV and it was not detected or was known and accepted.

    Something “broke” in the process…right?

    1. I’m guessing that the Harvard-MIT announcement shocked a lot of people and brought an ongoing conflict over strategic direction to a head. The BoV decided they didn’t have the luxury of time to figure out what to do.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    So, I assume that Jim Bacon will now rant and rail about the unelected and opaque University of Virginia Board of Visitors. You know, just like he did about the unelected and opaque MWAA.

    Of course, we’d have to continue to the unelected and opaque leadership of every public university and college in Virginia.

    Then, we can move on to the unelected and opaque judicial system in Virginia (one of only four states that allows the legislature to appoint judges without a merit panel).

    How about the unelected, opaque and non-representative Commonwealth Transportation Board?

    Repeat after me …

    “It is the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond that is the problem”.

    “It is the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond that is the problem”.

    1. “So, I assume that Jim Bacon will now rant and rail about the unelected and opaque University of Virginia Board of Visitors.”

      Er, Don, Your analogy with my stance on the MWAA board is flawed. I never complained that the MWAA board was “unelected”… just that Virginia’s interests were not sufficiently represented. I did have a problem with transparency because MWAA is not subject to either a federal or state FOIA.

      The UVa board of visitors? I think the Commonwealth of Virginia’s interests are sufficiently represented. UVa is also subject to the Virginia FOIA.

      Now, please tell me how the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond is a problem in the case of UVa and Teresa Sullivan. That makes no sense whatsoever. From the admittedly spotty information we have, it looks like the BoV is exercising some needed leadership.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    So, a rich real estate developer from Virginia Beach “gets it” and one of the top scholars in the United States doesn’t.

    What an unfortunate, and incredibly provincial, choice of words

    1. I don’t know if Teresa Sullivan “gets it” or not — she hasn’t said enough to warrant a judgment. But it does sound like Helen Dragas does. Do you deny the need for a massive overhaul of higher education? Or are you locked into reactionary, defend-the-status-quo mode on this?

  4. Come on, Don, instead of turning every post into an anti-Richmond screed, why not address the serious issues that this episode brings to the forefront? Is there really a Descendants-of-Pocahontas angle on the impact of online education on established institutions of higher ed? If so, I haven’t heard of it.

    Is the UVa Board of Visitors really so far behind the curve in understanding the changing economics of higher ed? Or was Sullivan behind the curve, and the BoV acting responsibly by forcing a parting of the ways?

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      The issue is that we have a General Assembly that seems to take no interest in the public assets that are our state colleges and universities.

      A group of unelected BoV members who seem to get appointed based on how much they contribute to Virginia politicians have created some kind of crisis with Terry Sullivan. Or maybe Terry created the crisis. Who knows? Not the taxpayers or the alumni or the parents of the kids at UVa or, apparently, anybody in the General Assembly.

      Jim, you favor complex and sophisticated ROI analysis for transportation projects but you don’t think the future of the state’s university system should be openly and honestly discussed in public?

      Bob McDonnell needs to step up and describe what’s going on. The University of Virginia is not the property of the Board of Visitors, it is an asset of the state and we damn well elected Bob McDonnell to watch over those assets.

      Having an obvious fiasco with no explanation should be utterly and totally unacceptable to you – as a journalist and as a Virginian.

      1. Don asked this question, “You don’t think the future of the state’s university system should be openly and honestly discussed in public?”

        Where on earth did you get that idea? Of course the future of the state’s university system should be openly and honestly discussed in public. Can you name a single other general-interest blogger in Virginia who has given more attention to higher ed issues than I have?

        1. DJRippert Avatar


          You are very much in the minority on this. While you do blog about higher education, you don’t hold the General Assembly, Governor or UVA Board of Visitors to a very high standard. You seem perfectly happy to be kept in the dark over the BoV’s reasons for suddenly parting ways with Terry Sullivan.

          Where is the hue and cry from our elected leaders over the reason for this termination? Where are the members of the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond demanding that Bob McDonnell explain the actions of the BoV?

          The decision to “accept Ms. Sullivan’s resignation” was made in a close meeting with a vote of three members of the executive committee.

          Here is a very well written editorial on the matter:


          Here is the key point –

          “The vacuum of information about her removal is being filled with rumors of political intrigue. Dragas and other board members owe the university community a better explanation. Indeed, the board owes all Virginians, who have a stake in the future of one of the state’s pre-eminent institutions of higher education, particulars on the source of dissatisfaction with Sullivan.”.

          The board owes ALL VIRGINIANS an explanation. And if the board won’t provide that explanation then the governor should provide it. And if the governor won’t, then the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond should investigate.

          UVA is NOT the property of Helen Dragas or the other members of the Board of Visitors.

          Why is this hard?

          1. Don, you’re all over the place. I never said the board didn’t owe the public a better explanation. Indeed, I’ve just published a post saying that it DOES. I don’t know where you get this stuff.

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I can’t profess to know the ins and outs of the UVA BOV any more than you can. But I hate to see this unfortunate event turned into a cheerleading session for online university classes to fit a du jour view fashionable at the moment with the right wing.

    It seems that Sullivan had all kinds of issues and not much time to deal with them These include keeping UVA’s reputation for quality intact in the face of many professor retirements, dealing with much less state funding as a public institution, falling short of fund raising during the worst recession since the Depression, conflicting worlds of running a hospital system and a big university, handling Bob’s picks for BOVand on its goes. Casteen was a good fundraiser but he did his work in much better economic times and also got into some funny relationships with business.

    The essential question is whether UVa wants to be lead by a strong intellectual or a good fundraiser. I think we know the answer.

    1. No, you won’t know the answer until the BoV makes its next selection. If they do put fund-raising at the top of their list of criteria, then they will deserve condemnation. But it strikes me that they’re looking for someone who can provide strategic leadership.

      No one has turned this event into a “cheerleading session for online university classes.” Nobody has yet said that UVa must imitate Harvard-MIT. The BoV has stated clearly that it wants a president who acknowledges the online challenge and can devise a strategy for responding to it.

      I find it interesting that you dismiss online educational out of hand, especially given the relentless increase in costs, tuitions, affordability and access. I guess there’s no problem that more Pall Grants and more student loans with discounted interest rates can’t solve! Anything to keep your left-wing friends in academia insulated from reality!!

  6. larryg Avatar

    well… I DID cheerlead a bit for online but perhaps I’ll cache that with several other things that are going on in the world that UVA cannot afford to retreat from.

    Education is in a state of flux with a lot of moving parts that did not used to move and UVA has – as I said before – challenge – and opportunity and if they retreat from it, they’ll end up trying to hold off change and cling to the status quo.

    That would be in my mind an ignoble destiny for Jefferson’s baby.

    Why is it wrong to have a vision that UVA seek to serve any and all of Virginia’s kids that are capable of learning on that level?

    You can’t take taxpayer money and tuition money and alumni money and then lock the doors to continue business as usual – not any more.

    And let me give an atta-boy while I’m at it for the UVA Medical System.

    This is one of the few places I’ve gone to where I received a scan in the morning and 2 hours later in the Doctors office – he’s showing me that scan on his computer. Perhaps this is standard now.. I don’t now.. but it impressed me!

  7. Richard Avatar

    James – I think your speculations are premature. My speculation is that it was personal, or perhaps fundraising (which would be made an issue if it was personal), and that there are conflicts between the new and old BOV members. Professors are obstinate and hideabound and jealous of their privileges, but this has always been the case. Phoenix University may have something to teach UVA, but UVA can’t remain a great institution if it’s identity and mission is primarily entrepeneurial. These attacks on public institutions and public employees are way overblown; criticism is ok and certainly expected in academia, but rhetoric such as “bastions of privilege” and “ivory towers” doesn’t help.

    1. Ricardo, Speculation may be premature, as you say — we don’t have the full story yet. We certainly don’t have Sullivan’s story. So any pronouncements are provisional. However, Dragas made it very, very clear that the differences between the BoV and Sullivan were not merely philosophical but had to do with the strategic vision for the university.

      As for my criticisms of higher ed generally, I stand by them. The sector has grown fat while those it serves, its students, have sold themselves into indentured servitude. The higher-edbusiness model is basically exploitative and it needs to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch.

  8. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Halleluia! (Did spell that right? )Didn’t go to the university

  9. DJRippert Avatar

    “Thrun decides that KnowLabs will build something called Udacity. The name, a mashup of audacity and university, is intended to convey the boldness of both Thrun’s and his students’ ambitions. His goal is for Udacity to offer free eight-week online courses. For the next six months or more, the curriculum will focus on computer science. Eventually it will expand into other quantitative disciplines including engineering, physics, and chemistry. The idea is to create a menu of high-quality courses that can be rerun and improved with minimal involvement from the original instructor. KnowLabs will work only with top professors who are willing to put in the effort to create dynamic, interactive videos. Just as Hollywood cinematography revolutionized the way we tell stories, Thrun sees a new grammar of instruction and learning starting to emerge as he and his team create the videos and other class materials. Behind every Udacity class will be a production team, not unlike a film crew. The professor will become an actor-producer. Which makes Thrun the studio head.

    He’s thinking big now. He imagines that in 10 years, job applicants will tout their Udacity degrees. In 50 years, he says, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them. Thrun just has to plot the right course.”.

    Repeating the key point: “In 50 years, he says, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education…”.

    And that wasn’t from MIT or Harvard, it was from Stanford.


  10. larryg Avatar

    ” we have a General Assembly that seems to take no interest in the public assets that are our state colleges and universities.”

    well they sure as hell tax the hell out of Virginians to fund them….

    how much does the GA “give” to higher ed every year?

  11. larryg Avatar

    Okay, I’ve had some time to read more articles and further digest and one inescapable conclusion for me is that HOW this was handled was not good and the fingerprints belong to those on the BOV who initiated this seemingly with little consultation with other “stakeholders” ( I actually HATE that word because of the disingenuous nature of it’s predominate use).

    The BOV appears to have acted on it’s own in a manner perceived by others as arbitrary.

    This kind of thing seldom is the product of a group entity and almost always specific people within a group who successfully pushed their view.

    I’m with DJ on the odious nature of the nexus between membership on the BOV and campaign contributions also.

    not only unelected and unaccountable but NOT representative of the students, parents and taxpayers of Virginia who all have a legitimate stake in the affairs of the tax and fee-funded institution.

    this is part of what influenced my opinion:

    ” Outrage escalated on the historic University of Virginia campus Monday over the abrupt ouster of President Teresa Sullivan by a governing board that offered few new details about why it had acted or what exactly had gone awry.”


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