Sullivan Responds, Reiterates Defense of Business As Usual

Teresa Sullivan

by James A. Bacon

Teresa Sullivan has spoken at last, making a statement to the Board of Visitors defending her record as president of the University of Virginia and her philosophy of incremental change. “Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university,” she said. “Sustained change with buy-in does work.”

Being an incrementalist, she says, does not mean she lacks a vision, she said, breaking her self-imposed silence since her resignation. She outlined her vision clearly in what she characterized as a “strategic vision statement.” Some of the ideas in that very conceptual document seem promising, especially those that would make the university more competitive in attracting and retaining faculty standouts. But there is much that her vision does not address, and her statement yesterday did nothing to address those concerns. (See my critique of her “Academic Strategy” memo here.)

While it’s clear that a university cannot be run like a corporation — they are prestige-maximizing institutions, not profit-maximizing institutions — universities are, like corporations, constrained by finite resources. It is not unreasonable, given the way tuition and fees have outpaced inflation year after year, decade after decade, to ask a university president to pay close attention to costs, efficiency and productivity.

In the higher education sector as a whole, administration costs have ballooned far faster than other expenses. Sullivan obliquely acknowledged this reality by focusing cuts, such as they are, in non-academic areas. “Strategic cutting and large-scale cost savings have … been concentrated in non-academic areas, and these areas have become notably leaner and more efficient,” she said yesterday.

The emphasis on non-academic cuts is entirely appropriate. I would very much like to know, however, what she cut and how significant the savings are. She provided no details in her statement. This issue is fundamental, and without more information no informed judgment of Sullivan’s tenure can be made.

Sullivan also defended the academic status quo against corporate-style restructuring:

If we were to embark on a course of deep top-down cuts, there would also be difficult questions regarding what to cut. A university that does not teach the full range of arts and sciences will no longer be a university. Certainly it will no longer be respected as such by its former peers. …

Nor can we always predict which kind of knowledge will be of greatest import in the future. Before September 11, few of us understood just how important Arabic and other Middle Eastern and Central Asian languages would become — to our students, to the nation, and to national security. Suppose we had eliminated some of those languages because of low enrollment or other fiscal considerations before 2001. We would be scrambling to recreate them now.

There is some truth in what she says. But by her logic, a university shouldn’t retrench in any field of knowledge. Yet the University of Virginia cannot be all things to all people. It cannot achieve excellence in all areas. Some of the areas where it excels today, as Sullivan herself has acknowledged, may not be the areas where it wants to excel in the future. Someone has to make hard choices. But Sullivan, in essence, was saying that she refuses to.

Finally, while it’s clear that Sullivan is open to technologies that facilitate online education  — she cited the creation of the 4VA telepresence consortium with the state, Cisco, Virginia Tech, George Mason, and James Madison to share courses and other resources — she still did not address the larger issue. How should UVa should position itself in a world in which an increasing amount of education will take place online, people can easily acquire specific skill sets they need for the marketplace, and there will be a decreasing demand for the credential of an expensive, four-year degree?

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.

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  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    You hope the BOV “hangs tough?” The BOV hasn’t communicated clearly WHAT they are doing and WHY they are doing it and whether ALL of them are on board other than some kind of Darden School axis led Dargas and Kington. Once again, “hangs tough for what”

    Your problem is that you assume your arguments about the sky falling are all axiom. You assume everything you say is “in profound crisis” but you haven’t articulated yet what the “profound crisis” is at UVa and why departments such as Classic and German and others have to be tossed out the window wholesale. If someone doesn’t go along with your idea sand sense of urgency, then they are “Business As Usual.”

    You call for yet another review, but the school has gone through two reviews in the past 10 years. Please explain why another is needed.

    You keep talking about out of control costs, yet tuition at UVa remains one of the great bargains in U.S. higher ed today.

    You really need to be more careful with the facts and the spin you put on them or you will end up with the MIT/Harvard fallacy last week. You claimed this was a “revolution” in online construction (did your libertarian-conservative think tank chums say so?) but in fact, the online programs offer a little “certificate” useful for nothing that says you took the course. Is that where you want higher ed to go? We’ll all get little certificates that we bought online?

  2. One of the things likely to happen as the four-year degree (to say nothing of advanced degrees) gets increasingly unaffordable is that higher ed credentialism will come under fire. People *will* in fact engage in just-in-time education, learning specific skills and mastering specific bodies of knowledge when they need it, instead of spending four to six years to earn a B.A.

    That’s not necessarily ideal. There is much to be said for the traditional liberal arts degree. (I sure got a lot out of mine.) But people are increasingly looking at the cost-benefit trade offs. The world is changing, Peter, and you’re stuck in the 2oth century. Eat dust, baby!

  3. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    James and Peter have nicely framed the dilemma. Some think there is no problem. They confront no dilemma. For those who disagree, believing there is a problem that screams for a solution, the question is who do you believe can solve the problem – Dragas or Sullivan? That’s a question of who do you trust or believe in. Much is known about Sullivan. Not so Dragas. Here we can rely on only what we’ve seen the last 10 days. That’s pretty thin cruel on which to stake the future of a university you love. The Governor needs to speak. Likely, only he can help at this point.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “The Governor needs to speak.”.

      Exactly what I have been saying too, Mr. Fawell.

  4. Neil Haner Avatar
    Neil Haner


    You define a University as a “prestige-maximizing institution.” Saying it’s goal is not to be a “profit-maximizing institution.” It’s not supposed to be either.

    A University makes two things. (1) Graduates who can contribute productively to our society, and (2) Research findings that benefit society.

    Any vision for the University of Virginia needs to start there. What can they do to best produce quality graduates and quality research over the next XX number of years.

    Degree program offerings should be flexible; I’ve used the example here before of the engineering school at UVA discontinuing majors in nuclear and aeronautical engineering as those particular industries were in decline, and the creation of a biomedical engineering department as it became a national focus.

    Change is fine. We shouldn’t be afraid to alter the direction of the University, toy with department staffings and program offerings, so long as we’re doing so with an overall mindset of best producing graduates and research than can benefit society.

    1. Neil, please distinguish between what “is” and what “should be.” Universities are, in actual fact, prestige maximizing institutions obsessed with their prestige and reputation. That applies to UVa in spades, as evidence by the attitudes of both Teresa Sullivan and the Board of Visitors. Almost every decision is guided by the question of what impact it will have on the U.S. News & World-Report rankings.

      I agree 100% with you about flexibility in degree offerings. In fact, I hope to have more to say shortly. But first…. I’ve got to finish a piece on credentialism!

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