by James A. Bacon

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.

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21 responses to “Technology and UVa’s Mission”

  1. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    I’ve twice read the president’s new 113 page four year plan for the University. As a result, I appreciate why the Board of Visitors removed her last summer.

  2. institutions have to evolve and adapt to change. In a perfect world – the money spent on obsolete technology would be re-directed to foster the new technology rather than adding to costs and make the current product less affordable. The goal should be to leverage the technology to make it MORE affordable which is what is happening in the real world for all manner of products.

    So on that aspect I find Sullivan’s approach a de-facto continuation of the status quo and worse – and to be truthful – the justification for folks like Dragas to work to undermine and remove Sullivan.

    I wince every time I hear someone in a moribund institution talk about how much more it will cost to “automate”.

    I have the same problem with the health care industry who gladly pay herds of people to stumble all over each other in a physicians office to keep up with the paper and I’m doubly resentful when I have to see a specialist and I personally have to get involved in “encouraging” my primary care and other providers to send paper to the specialist instead of there being a medical equivalent of “online” that exists virtually everywhere EXCEPT in medicine and education.

    So Sullivan wants to join the 21st century but instead of embracing the idea that UVA could do more with less – she’s basically saying “it’s gonna cost you”.

    For than sin alone, I’d dump here but not in the way that Dragas went about it back-door style. I’d do it up-front – prima facia with no confusion over what the issue is.

    What Dragas did is doubly bad because it was clumsy and ham-fisted but worse, it diverted attention from the real issues.

    A reputation is something that is hard-won and easily damaged and Dragas has screwed the pooch as they say in the vernacular.

    UVA desperately needs a change agent – but one that has respect and trust rather than seen as a hyena that you do not want to let get behind you.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    What, exactly, is an “elite” institution? Got any names?

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    One more thing, did the BOV hike tuition 9.9 percent for in-state in early 2010 BEFORE Sullivan arrived?

    How come no one ever talks about Casteen? Didn’t he hike tuition and fees, too?

  5. why not Casteen? It’s simple. Now days it’s all about blame and of demonisation of people, institutions and associations and he’s no longer “available” and Sullivan is.

    We have created such a toxic environment now days that no one in their right mind wants to step into the breach unless they are themselves willing to use any/all tactics against others that they might expect to be used against them.

    People have lost faith in institutions and they blame the people who are the faces of those institutions in large part because they figure if they are in a official role – that they are “part of the problem”.

    And you don’t have to look far for the evidence. McDonnell and the GA did pass what they felt needed to be done for transportation – and look at the response. Hate and venom towards McDonnell from people in his own party and threats to “primary” other GOP who have been largely principled over the years in their conservative principles but make one mistake – and you’ll be hauled in front of the inquisition to answer for your sins and to be drawn and quartered internet style.

    No good deed goes unpunished these days.

  6. Darrell Avatar

    Isn’t UVa already a member of the 100 GB Internet 2? Did they forget to plug in the fiber line?

  7. Darrell… Darrell… Darrell.. it’s gonna cost you big bucks to get them to plug in…. doncha know? just plugging it in is so “yesterday”.


  8. virginiagal2 Avatar

    Maybe it’s because I work in IT, but to me these priorities seem both sensible and economically valuable.

    Big data – which is not the same as finance analytics – is one of the most economically promising growth fields out there. I know someone out west who’s already made a pretty decent chunk of change (eight figures) with a big data startup. Having a major research university invest in big data seems like a good deal for the U, for the commonwealth, and for the business community. I’d rather have these very good jobs here than in Silicon Valley.

    Big data, kind of by definition, is big, and does require enhanced storage. Upgrading networking speeds overall involves redoing your network infrastructure and is not simply a matter of plugging in – it’s a matter of replacing network components so you can use that bandwidth. The benefits are huge -it’s required for good use of online learning technology, as well as realtime digital medicine and many other leading edge applications.

    Pretty much everyone is having to spend more on information security these days – the threat levels are up, the bad guys are more and more sophisticated, and if you want funding for classified or patentable research, you need good security. This isn’t a replacement – this is an actual increase in costs that is fairly widespread across organizations that use computing for business.

    UVA already has quite a bit of distance learning, and has done significant research in it. See the engineering school’s continuing ed program, the research at the Curry school, etc. As you noted, there are additional monies budgeted for distance ed – I’m not sure I get the criticism. Are you objecting because they’re also investing in other critical areas? That doesn’t quite seem clear.

    I’m not sure how this budget – which seems to me to be very focused on fields that are growing, that have huge potential for creating new knowledge and new businesses – how this can be translated into being simply “pro faculty.” I’m not on the faculty, and I am jazzed at what I see here – something that’s smart and very pro business .

    I graduated from UVA about 30 years ago. At the time it was an outstanding university. I want it to stay an outstanding university. That is extremely important to me. And that does mean keeping up with the leading edge fields, paying faculty a competitive wage, and investing in infrastructure – and infrastructure for STEM is a LOT more expensive than for the liberal arts.

    Where I see the money being spent, far in excess of when I graduated, is on student perks – dorms that are far nicer, many more and nicer recreation facilities, many more activities, many more dining options. My guess is these are needed to compete for students, but I suspect a good bit of the increased costs of tuition are going to amenities that we didn’t have. I can’t say if that is good or bad, but students are definitely paying for them – they are not free. I suspect a lot of the tuition increase is here. Blame the college ratings systems, perhaps?

    1. a lot to chew on and it seems to be a very legitimate perspective. Do I dare ask what your view is of the actual kerfuffle between Sullivan and Dragas?

  9. Darrell Avatar

    Well then UVa has been wasting a lot of money by paying usage fees for something they ain’t using. This report sounds like the stuff the politicians do down here. Every time they want to raise taxes they blame it on the schools. Why couldn’t our higher ed leaders do the same thing?

    “Our students are being left behind because the state won’t give us the money to buy an over sized ST connector so we can plug in to the world wide web. So now the school has to raise money from the children…for the children…because we used OUR money to replace the ivy on the ivy covered walls that the faculty demanded.

  10. Ghost of Ted Dalton Avatar
    Ghost of Ted Dalton

    Very tough policy choices….

    The problem with U.Va. is that it seems to have 2 missions from the state. Yes, we have the “you’re a public university, you have to be more affordable” chorus on one hand.

    And yet if you talk to anyone who deals with the University and the state, there’s also enormous pressure to be a “public ivy.” Legislators, especially from NoVa, view admissions to U.Va. as prime political plums to constituents (and trust me the Admissions office gets scores of letters from legislators with applications).

    I’ve always thought U.Va. should be allowed to privatize if that’s the institution’s desire. Quite frankly, it is rather ridiculous for the state to give such small appropriations to the school and yet expect it to be a “state” school. It’s also unfair for the state to want it to be “big state U” on one hand and yet to also insist it remain a “crown jewel.”

    There’s an enormous tension around U.Va. and it’s relationship to the state at this point in history. And yet the “privatization” word never seems to be uttered by either party. Why isn’t there at least a conversation about this? I’d love for you to do an article about that….why is everyone so reluctant to talk about that?

  11. What is the mission of UVA? Is it at least partially to provide an affordable higher education to some citizens of Virginia?

    If that is the justification for receiving public funds – then it needs to provide that value – independent of the other issues.

    If not, then, let’s admit that and re-jigger funding to deal with that reality.

    but that perspective seems to be in conflict with the “big data” concept which I presume is to get on board with the 21st century to provide more, better, higher ed to more people – for less money than the physical on-campus experience.

    UVA cannot be all things to all people but at this point it seems itself to be uncertain as to what it’s mission is or should be , in the context of higher ed in the 21st Century.

    That’s a shame because if UVA cannot make the transition – then it’s relevance in the modern world probably diminishes.

    It’s actually a tough task for the President and the BOV to deal with and perhaps is the real source of the divisions.

  12. virginiagal2 Avatar

    Just a couple of responses.

    When you switch over to very high speed connectivity, unless you have bottomless pockets, you don’t replace every piece of equipment at once, especially when you have as many buildings to wire as you’re talking about on grounds, and especially when you are talking about adding whole new functionalities that don’t yet exist, such as expanded use of remote medicine and MOOCs. Based on what information I have, I don’t see anything that would lead me to conclude that they have been paying for connectivity that they’re not using. If there is more info otherwise, I would really appreciate a link I could go check.

    UVA is quite affordable for a first rate research university. It’s role is to be our state’s flagship university. Virginia has a very large number of public institutions – having a couple of really, really good ones makes sense economically and those research universities are economic engines for the state.

    The best ones don’t have to be as cheap as the lesser ones, especially when there are less expensive options such as going 2 years to community college and transferring – and UVA does participate in that.

    Big data is not about providing more and better higher ed to more people. Big data is a new field of study taking the enormous amount of data we now have available about all sorts of things – political behavior, weather patterns, health care procedures and outcomes, retail behavior, opinions – and figuring out ways to analyze and use that data. Look up topics like Hadoop, R language, or just google “big data.” It’s huge – big data is what drove the analytics behind the Obama campaign’s use of technology, behind some of what’s being done to fight terrorism, behind new ways of predicting weather patterns. We have enormous amounts of data now that we are just now figuring out how to analyze and correlate, as well as related ethical and privacy concerns that need to be considered.

    MOOCs are the massive open courses that caused so much debate at UVA. Right now, the one study I’ve seen with preliminary data seems to indicate that they are somewhat less effective than more traditional methods of delivering online ed and less effective than classroom learning – but it’s early days yet. It’s something to keep an eye on and a hand in – but no one’s figured out how to monetize it yet, and they are not currently accepted for credit anywhere, including at their host universities, although there’s discussion of experiementing with that.

    Also, be aware that a significant percentage of current MOOC participants already have degrees, often advanced degrees, in the topics they’re taking a free course in. You’re getting people that are very focused and already have a start on the topics at hand – not ordinary undergrads or willing learners.

    I’ve taken online classes – for credit, not MOOCs – and I’m not anti-distance ed, but I will say I am extremely cautious on how fast I think UVA should move in that direction. It isn’t the same thing, especially for undergrads. Online ed works best with older learners, non-traditional learners, those working on a second degree, those changing careers. For those, it can be very very helpful and I strongly support it.

    OTOH, for a traditional undergraduate working towareds a first degree, online is not a substitute for the brick and mortar experience. If we’re going to substitute cheap for good, we need to admit that’s what we’re doing and consider the consequences. I would be less alarmed if more people opining on this had actually taken courses online – I think the differences would be clearer, and people would be less likely to push for changes that might do a disservice to students.

    I keep thinking of that line from Justice Ginsburg – to me, for a first degree, a distance ed degree is kind of a skim milk bachelor’s. Better than nothing, but don’t kid yourself it’s as good. I wouldn’t want a distance ed degree for one of my family members, as a first degree if they were a traditional student. Second bachelor’s, or a certificate, or work related ed, or going back to school as an adult – I’d be all for it then.

  13. Darrell Avatar

    Big data… We had a rule for that once. The amount of reports that management demands is directly proportional to the amount of memory available for processing.

    Computer upgrades caused more reports than management could collectively analyze.

    Back in the 70s, I worked as a field engineer for a top 50 company. They had to have the biggest of everything. Bigger CPU, tape drives, disk drives, solid state this and that, 24 hr modem operations, high speed printers for the reports. You know what happened to them? THEY WENT BANKRUPT!

    Turns out Big Data does not correspond to Bigger Sales! Food for thought in a business that doesn’t have a monopoly on things like education or research.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      I recall similar experiences, Darrell.

      Among modern day academia, Big Data stuff is a predictable as rain when they are threatened. Its because Academia then has to grab onto something and hold it tight to justify its existence. So now we got “Big Data” on which the University of Virginia’s very future and reputation depends.

      How convenient Big Data is. It distracts from the fact that Academia is teaching less and less to those students whose tuition are going higher and higher to pay for what? Big Data Big Salaries of course. Think of all the fancy new toys those higher student tuition are going to buy Academia.

  14. virginiagal2 Avatar

    Actually, that has nothing to do with Big Data, which actually is something relatively new. Big data is not about traditional reporting. Big Data is an aspect of computer science that deals with the datasets of valuable and important information that have grown so large that traditional methods of computing don’t address them well.

    There are technical and research issues of how to analyze these enormous datasets – which the computer science, biology, economics, political science, social science, and business people are working on. There are many scientific, business, and national security interests in the valuable data those data sets contain – there is money to be made, knowledge to be derived, and leads on terrorists, if you can read the data.

    Then add on top of all that, major ethical and moral questions about how to use data that can tell so much about individuals who may not realize how much they are revealing.

    Just a couple of practrical examples – how do you analyze full genome scans to look for correlations with disease? How do you analyze trillions of entries of Internet activity to look for patterns of behavior that indicate terrorist activity? How can you analyze trillions of Facebook clicks, likes, and page views to identify customer characteristics to adjust your marketing?

    Big data is not about “we want more reporting.” Big Data is about addressing practical problems. Business and national security need to be able to meaningfully use data sets of sizes that are almost unimaginable – so much data that traditional methods don’t work. The people who are addressing this are carving out a new field of study – and creating lucrative businesses as they do a better job of getting meaning out of raw data.

    There’s a decent overview of it at Wikipedia (see ) or you can simply Google the term. Or just read practically any recent issue of practically any magazine for computer professionals – Big Data is a catch phrase for one of the biggest current trends in computing – and business – one that we should be paying attention to, if we want Virginia to stay competitive.

  15. larryg Avatar

    well, I ‘get’ “big data” having been in IT for a while but

    1. – the discussion intertwining the mission of UVA with Big Data is a bit perplexing. Is it a tactic to enhance it’s current mission or is it a strategy that should be a key component of their mission?

    2. – does this have anything to do with the Sullivan/Dragas fracas (or should it)?

    3. – Actually I’m kind of surprised that UVA does not already have or had already embraced the need for “big data”.

    4. Name 3 top universities that have “big data”.

  16. virginiagal2 Avatar

    Big data is a tool. Use of it is becoming a new field and revolutionizing old fields. Using big data is a huge growth area for gaining new knowledge in many areas of academics and creating new businesses. It’s also a growth area for jobs – very very good jobs.

    This budget was pointed out as something that shows Sullivan is doing a bad job. To me, if she’s embracing use of and training in big data, she’s looking to the future – doing a good job. I’m a lot more jazzed about big data than about MOOCs, which have more than a little bit of “flavor of the month” to them and currently have no discernable business model. Big data is actually something that can create knowledge, businesses, and jobs TODAY. I’m all for funding that.

    UVA has in fact started embracing big data – see and

    As for universities using big data, that would include Harvard Stanford Oxford Princeton and so on and on. If you want more, just ask, or google “Big Data University Name” replacing University Name with the name of the U of your choice.

    I really like seeing UVA at the forefront of something. That needs to be encouraged, not disparaged with “oh, it costs something.” If we’re going to grow in STEM, STEM costs something – hardware, software, and the staff is way more expensive because you can make a lot more money in business with a PhD in CS than you can with a PhD in Philosophy (and I’m not arguing the societal merits of the one degree versus the other – just the market price.) STEM costs. Being cheap costs more, because you lose your competitive edge. This is worth competing in.

    1. Virginiagal2, I don’t think anyone is disparaging the investment in big data “because it costs something.” In fact, the point of the post was to highlight the fact that online learning is not the only important technological issue facing UVa.

      My concern (not expressed in this post) would be that Sullivan proposes to fund the big data initiative by jacking up tuition by 20% over the next four years at a time when wages are stagnating and people are questioning the value of higher education. If big data is so important (and it may well be), why not fund it out of the endowment? Why not downsize less critical disciplines at the university?

  17. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    This reminds me of the guy holding the glittering jewel out in his left to grab the attention of the victim while his right hand swings a knife out and around into the victim’s back.


    Meanwhile, lets get back to what’s really going on here.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      PS – oldest game in town, distract and clutter up with disinformation as you strike at Eastertide.

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