BOV Day Reality Check

By Peter Galuszka

In today’s run up to the decision on the future of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, two printed items are of merit. Reading them sets the stage for the moment when we know if Rector Helen Dragas “gets it” or not, in the words of another blogger.

One is an Associated Press story  that notes the troubles that students at for-profit “career” colleges have in paying off their debts. So many have trouble, the U.S. Department of Education might cut off federal support for their loans to such schools.

The second story by the editorial director of the Chronicle of High Education writes of the “lost decade” of from 1999 to 2009 when colleges when on a spending binge for everything from fancy dorms to questionable new courses. In 2003, the story in the New York Times states, only two colleges charge more than $40,000 a year for tuition, room and board but by 2009 some 224 were above that mark. The tuitions were hiked to meet debt while ignoring that other sources of revenue were drying up.

The problem with the former item is that so-called “reformers” such a blogger on this site, advocate for-profit schools as a solution to Virginia’s college cost bloat. The problem seems to be that at 193 programs at “career” colleges at 93 schools, students couldn’t be gainfully employed enough despite their training and fell into massive debt. Such programs include Everett College’s paralegal training, more than 40 programs at Corinthian Colleges, a chef’s school in Austin and a medical assistant program at Sanford-Brown College up in  McLean.

Ideally, such schools are a lot better than poring over Goethe or Plato in a useless German or Classics class. But their weak performance raises other serious questions. Many of these “for-profit” schools so favored by the conservatives depend on federal student aid dollars to make them work. At 25 percent oft he schools, some 80 percent get most of their revenue from federally-back loans.

Reality check! Watch another free market genie flash out the window! This is reminiscent of those wonderful new MIT and Harvard online class programs that give you no useful credit for any degree, just a handsome certificate suitable for framing. And this is the future and solution of higher education?

The opinion piece by Jeff Selingo says that this “lost decade” of mindless spending has indeed created a funding crisis on colleges and something has to be done about it. This also is a familiar these on this blog.

One little problem for the folks in Charlottesville. If the “lost decade” ended in 2009 and Teresa Sullivan wasn’t appointed president until 2010, why she be given the bum’s rush out the door for spending and planning that was done by the previous Board of Visitors and the previous president, the highly-regarded John Casteen? For example, I’m not a Hoo but wasn’t the billion dollar plus South Lawn project a Casteen deal?

The situation reminds me of a Tea Party rally I went to in the fall of 2010 in the rural piney woods near Williamsburg. A crowd of paunchy retirees in shorts and comfortable shoes shouted down Barack Obama for his role in the TARP bank bailout program. Only problem was it was George W. Bush’s program. Obama wasn’t president. Oh well. Never mind.

Anyway, today will be historic and I hope the board comes to the right decision and reinstates Sullivan.

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    Very persuasive, Peter, except for one little problem — I never said any of the stuff you attribute to me!!!

    First, I’ve never suggested that UVa emulate career colleges. I did say that I think career colleges, as a broad category, might act more quickly to exploit the opportunities of online learning than traditional, four-year schools and that they might gain educational market share. But they serve a different a different sector of the population. UVa has to find its own way — it just needs to move more aggressively.

    Second, I never blamed Teresa Sullivan for poor decisions that occurred on John Casteen’s watch. Indeed, I specifically noted that UVa is operating under a strategic plan that he helped devise. Sullivan just happened to come on board when the problems boiled over. The question is, what needs to be done to address the problems that festered unaddressed under Casteen? Will Sullivan’s philosophy of incremental change cut it, or is stronger medicine needed?

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    I have criticized Dragas for her handling of the Sullivan resignation, but in retrospect, I’m not sure how she could have handled it differently.

    Here’s what the conflict boils down to: Some people understand that higher education is in a profound crisis — runaway costs, excessive tuition and fees, and burgeoning online competition — and believe that dramatic action is needed, while others don’t. The Sullivan-resignation controversy is arguably the most important conflict taking place in higher education today. I hope the Board of Visitors hangs tough.

    As long ago as last October, if today’sWashington 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.

    That’s really a remarkable statement. Think about it: “There are parts of a university that need to be part of a university regardless of how many graduates they have.” Costs and tuition going through the roof… students borrowing themselves into indentured servitude… an online revolution looming that can beam in classics courses from top professors around the country… new disciplines emerging that the university wants to fund… And Ms. Sullivan sees no justification for shrinking or eliminating under-performing departments!

    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.

    1. DJRippert Avatar


      Did you really write that comment? It sounds more like the Baconator speaking.

      1. That *was* me, not Peter. Not sure how it happened. I’ve fixed the name attribution.

  3. It sounds ridiculous if you ask me.

    Let’s begin with this statement: “an online revolution looming that can beam in classics courses from top professors around the country.”

    It could also “beam in” MBA courses from Wharton and you could save 100 classics departments by firing all the faculty in the Darden school. . . . but guess what? An “education” isn’t beamed in like members of the Enterprise crew. A seminar in one university from a star faculty member should be–hold onto your hat beamer-inners–different from a seminar in the same subject at a different university.

    1. Online learning is still in its infancy. People are still figuring out how it works and how to optimize the learning experience. Meanwhile, technology continues to leapfrog ahead. The online learning experience will continue to evolve, and it will continue to improve.

  4. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    As anyone who is a fan of the Teaching Company will tell you, digitized (video and audio) lectures are a powerful and highly efficient and effective tool.
    So it is quite likely that all Universities, even the great ones, will either learn to master, maximize, and incorporate these tools within their existing structures and culture, or will suffer grievous harm by failing to do so, if only because their peer competitors (whether its Amherst or Podunk U) will be able to offer a superior learning experience to their own, at a far lower cost.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    Has anybody really thought through this reinstatement process?

    Let’s try some scenarios ….

    The BoV refuses to act and McDonnell fires all of them. Now we have no president and no BoV. McDonnell can appoint BoV members but they have to be confirmed by the General Assembly. Good luck getting those slackers off the beach and back to Richmond for that.

    The board refuses to reinstate Sullivan. Presumably, that constitutes action and the BoV gets to keep their seats – for now. However, whoever they pick is tainted. The somewhat irrational hatred for the BoV will spill over to the new president. Just look at the hazing Carl Zeithaml got for agreeing to be the interim president. Hard to imagine who would want that job now.

    The board reinstates Sullivan. Again, the board acts so the board stays. But the board is neutered. I have yet to hear anybody say that Sullivan was doing a good job across the spectrum of her responsibilities. Maybe she didn’t have time – that’s fair. Maybe she inherited a mess from Casteen – that’s fair. But the fundraising missed its goal and the university is still spending way too much money versus what it takes in. What if it turns out that Sullivan really isn’t a very good university President? Can the board really fire her again? Doesn’t she become “president for life” no matter what kind of job she does? Would any of the current board members really have the stomach to go through this again? Of course, Sullivan might turn out to be a fine president and all ends well.

    I think the board should reinstate Sullivan and then resign. Each and every one. McDonnell should appoint a new board with more higher ed experience. The first thing the new board should demand is a detailed strategic plan with specific actions to be taken over the next three years. Sullivan should write it, the General Assembly and the Governor should vet it and the Board should endorse it. If Sullivan doesn’t produce a plan or the plan is weak or Sullivan doesn’t actually implement he plan – she should be fired. Again.

  6. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    As I understand it, Dr Sullivan has three years remaining on her contract. If the Governor strongly reinforces the existing board with active, informed and capable members ( even including Dragas) that can formulate with Sullivan then enforce a plan to address the problems raised, then Sullivan has three years to proved her fitness to do the job. She’s replaced at the Boards discretion, if she fails to work out and implement the plan that the Board alone has to the power to approve. All this requires, of course requires courageous and inspired leadership. Unfortunately such leadership to date appears in short supply. At this point it would be tragic if the Board was not strongly backed and reinforced. The University then would be left with an unaccountable and unproven President, beholden now to the Faculty more than ever. That’s a recipe for continuing drift and decline until reality forces drastic change, and perhaps irreparable harm. That’s my take on it.

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