UVa Needs Someone Who Thinks like Helen Dragas but Isn’t Helen Dragas

Governor Bob McDonnell speaks about the Sullivan controversy. Photo credit: Washington Post.

Governor Bob McDonnell soon will reveal his appointments to replace three members of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors, including Rector Helen Dragas. The sad truth is that, despite the BoV’s recent vote of support for her, Dragas is damaged goods. She rushed through the forced resignation of President Teresa Sullivan without respect for proper procedure, and her credibility with the university community has plunged to zero. McDonnell really has no choice but to replace her.

While Dragas must go, McDonnell needs to replace her with someone who shares her views about the urgent need for reform at UVa. Despite the protestations of many that there is nothing wrong with Mr. Jefferson’s university that incremental change won’t solve, higher education nationally has reached a tipping point caused by soaring costs, unaffordable tuition & fees, and the evolution of online education to the point where it has the potential to disrupt the centuries-old higher ed model. We could very well see a collapse as steep and rapid as the one experienced by the newspaper industry.

McDonnell’s selections will send a message not only to the University of Virginia community but universities across the commonwealth. The fact is, with its elite, public-ivy brand, UVa is better positioned to survive the online onslaught better than most others. Respectable but middle-tier institutions like Virginia Commonwealth University, George Mason University and Old Dominion University are far more vulnerable.

Not only does the governor need to think carefully about his UVa appointments, he should insist that appointments to the board of every state college and university share the belief that higher ed can no longer afford to do Business As Usual. The Dragas fracas has crystallized the issues at stake. Now McDonnell must act.


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  1. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    With sadness, I agree she has to go. It is necessary for reason # 2 state in earlier post that: “What this debate is all about” is becoming increasingly clear. 1/ The University needs to to refocus its resources back onto its core mission of educating citizens. (See earlier James Bacon Post) The primary means to this end are establishing faculty compensation to rank it among the best universities in the Nation, and at the same time establish the methods to build faculty productiveness. 2/ The University community also needs to demand transparency in the running of its University. Only transparency can assure honest dialogue that achieves lasting results that positively impact real problems. Point #2 requires a culture shift. This shift is critically necessary to overcome what appears to be a largely dysfunctional community, one whose constant referrals to, and assurances of, “Trust” suggest the crying need for it. To those who argue otherwise, the question occurs: Why do you oppose transparency? What are you afraid of?

  2. larryg Avatar

    dunno what you boys have been smoking…but I’ve not seen or heard a scintilla of evidence that the gov intends to tackle the make up of BOVs nor transparency.

    Well Dragas stays or goes – why would we believe other than – that position will likely end up occupied by someone of her background conducting affairs as typically done in the past?

    I think the diversity of perceived issues here are breathtaking. In one breath, UVA, it’s strategic vision and budget priorities – the other the way a BOV processes – and overnight reform is expected simultaneously from both in order to move forward?

    hmm… how about ya’ll sharing that stuff you’re smoking?


  3. Is there evidence that helen Dragas “thinks”?

  4. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    In reply to Larryg – I suspect it’s achievable for two reasons –

    1/ A coalition of interests can be built around the critical task of reestablishing UVAs rank among great Universities. The key is obtaining the necessary agreement that University resources will be reallocated to insure a/ competitive salaries for those who “instruct,” b/ the provision of the modern tools they need to compete to best advantage in the changing world of modern higher education, and c/ to hold them and the Administration thereafter accountable for failure to perform to these stardards. Such a model, properly constructed, holds huge advantage for all concerned. It’s the central spindle around with other problems revolve.

    2/ Regarding TRANSPARENCY – ALUMNI AND DONORS SHOULD DEMAND IT. They alone can easily change the current opaque system. Why should they be expected donate money without it? Their failure to do so in the past is likely the reason the University got to the place it finds itself. The drift would have continued had Ms. Dragas not taken the action she did. Transparency would have obviated the need for her bold action long ago. The current system will fall like a house of cards, if the Alumni and Donors demand changes now. It’s long overdue.

  5. larryg Avatar

    re: reallocating resources – concept = budget transparency

    I’m not so optimistic that the stars will align …..

    For instance – take “Classics” and their costs… maybe 10 year trend line… perhaps compare to other University costs for “classics”.

    I’m not even sure who the actual players on in determining, deciding, prioritizing a budget and I have little hope that such info is going to see the light of day anytime soon….

    Leadership by the Gov on budget transparency and BOV – might move things but given the current institutional bulwark – Sullivan’s view of “incremental” change is more pragmatic than Dragas “the sky is falling, fix it now” mindset is.

    I admire Dragas insight and courage and perhaps she was at wits end trying to move things and just decided that if falling on a sword was the last option, so be it.

    I’ve searched JLARC for all manner of studies and reports on the costs and effectiveness of all manner of agencies and programs in Va but none on higher ed or UVA (perhaps others can find them).

  6. DJRippert Avatar

    The University of Virginia has been in operation for almost 200 years. If they don’t have a financial model that generates pro-forma analyses, the whole administration and all the BoV members should be fired. Assuming they do have such a model – what does it tell us? An “existential crisis” requiring the adoption of online teaching and the cutting of exiting programs must be driven by either UVA’s rankings or its financial condition. We know the rankings have been slipping although that slip is far from an “existential crisis”. So, I assume its the finances.

    Ms. Sullivan’s incremental approach is just fine and dandy as long as the University doesn’t find itself in a financial jam. What do the forward models tell us about that?

    The answer to the question of “who was right” – Sullivan or Dragas – will be answered by the financial condition of UVA over the coming years.

    If Dragas was right then Sullivan’s incremental change approach will put UVS in financial turmoil. If Sullivan was right there will be no turmoil as she pursues her “slow and steady” path of change.

    My real fear is that Sullivan is used to the rather rich level of state support that The University of Michigan receives. She may not have fully considered what it’s like to work at a university that has been almost abandoned by the state legislature.

  7. One important point missing from the entire debate over Sullivan et al is how several years ago the General Assembly gave UVa, William & Mary and Virginia Tech significant autonomy as compensation for a lower level of state financial support. The idea was that the universities, freed from the bureaucratic strictures of Richmond, would be able to find major savings and efficiencies, and enjoy more freedom of action. UVa and the others all went along. You don’t hear much about that when they complain about how their funding has fallen. I wonder why.

  8. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    A serious read of Dr. Sullivan’s June 18 Statement to the Board provides important insights. This is obviously a highly able person, deeply engaged in the art and craft of her demanding job, and has the technical skills to grapple with some of UVA current problems. However, one does get the feel from that statement that she is trying to do to much, “may not have fully considered” the challenges UVA currently faces, and lacks the focus these challenges demand. So I believe DJRippert’s fear is well founded. What’s transpired since June 18 should be a huge wake up call for her. We’ll see. Hopefully structures will be put in place to insure the “wake up”.

  9. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    You mean existential and out of the box? Sorry but this sounds so “business as usual.” Not addressing the need to get business people off the BOVs and more people with more varied backgrounds on them.

  10. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Re: some other comments of Larryg and DJRippert, here’s a few thoughts.

    Likely UVA over the past decade has not only been adrift when determining its best allocation of resources, but also in keeping its Instruction skills at the cutting edge. (Dr. Sullivan appears quite aware of this latter failing) Thus she’s aware that UVA cannot toss out Classics, if only because then it might as well toss out liberal arts altogether. However, the Classics Department appears needful of a serious overhaul. Obviously it needs to create far more “product.” That is, it needs to dispense far more knowledge to far more UVA students. Likely its asleep. Likely it needs to wake up and begin Instructing in far more dynamic, innovative ways that interact more effectively with today’s students as well other UVA disciplines, leveraging off of them while they leverage off it, creating wealth and buzz along the way. I suspect many UVA departments are asleep. Some perhaps for years, given all the upcoming retirements of tenured professors, and lack of interest of prior BoV and past President in problem which typically hard to solve in University culture.

    But, now retirements of tenure professors cannot be looked at as a problem, as Dragas and perhaps Sullivan do. Retirements need to be looked at as a huge opportunity, opening up many possibilities that must be pursued with great vigor, vision, imagination, and courage. This requires a great leader with great lieutenants, an immense variety skill sets. Does UVA have them. That’s a big question. More later on the modeling and financial side.

    1. Good point — the wave of retirements should not be seen as a negative. It should be seen as a rare opportunity to inject the faculty with young people with fresh perspectives on how to teach.

      1. WahooLaw Avatar

        Or as an opportunity to reduce tenured faculty head count. If you are going to embrace the brave new world of a more efficient university featuring online instruction, staffing has to be on the table. Can U.Va. still be U.Va. when some courses are taught by recorded lectures supplemented by non-tenured discussion leaders? If you are willing to think through that question rather than give one of the knee jerk responses, you belong in the discussion.

  11. Richard Avatar

    Sullivan knows the issues. The question is how to go about it. I don’t think a Wisconsin-style confrontation with academics (eliminate tenure, eliminate classrooms, cut the Classics and art, cut the budget to the bone) will work here, primarily because none of the University’s constituencies would support it. I think we need to give Sullivan a chance. She has shown herself to be an excellent politician. I think it was the BOV (and the Commonwealth) that was the problem – with her reinstatement and the credibility that accrued to her as a result with the academics, student body and alumni, and without the interference of the BOV, who showed themselves to be out of touch, poor managers, and worse politicans, perhaps Sullivan will be able to get the things that need to be done, done.

  12. “However, the Classics Department appears needful of a serious overhaul. Obviously it needs to create far more “product.” ”

    Obviously? Yet obviously this comment comes based on no knowledge of Virginia’s classics department other than one exists and doesn’t turn out thousands of “products.”

    1. reed fawell Avatar
      reed fawell

      You are right, Will, my comment is not founded on any knowledge, or opinion, concerning individuals within UVA Classic’s Department. To the extent that my statement can reasonable be taken to reflect poorly on those individuals, I apologize for it. I have the highest regard for fine University Professors generally, and most particularly in the Classics which, in my view, hold a unique place within Liberal Arts education. Indeed the Classics are the Earth, Wind, and Fire of the Humanities. Without them all is lost. And now apparently Classics Department at UVA (other Universities) are under attack. To lose them is unacceptable. Hence my concern. To fend off these attacks, they must be as strong, vibrant and impactful, student wise and university wide, as possible.

  13. Faculty retirements are an opportunity, but getting groovy young people in has a big problem: research universities are based on the reputation of their senior scholars.

    Ever noticed that hardly anybody goes through Harvard or Yale as an assistant professor and moves up to full? The senior ranks are recruited because of their fame and reputation. (Another way of looking at it is this: we want the world’s best astrophysicist and the odds are not good that the world’s best XY or Z is always the junior guy down the hall.)

    If Virginia wants to move up its got to buy the best–a bit like Real Madrid paying 70 million Euros for Ronaldo from Man United. Doing that with a crazy lady as Rector will be difficult.

    1. reed fawell Avatar
      reed fawell

      Buying Stars might be essential, but might there be a very judicious to go about it. For example, Will, your first two paragraphs suggest that there is as wealth of talent that languishes by virtue of tenured Stars standing in the Way. Might this untapped and ignored talent pool provide UVA with great opportunity talent and cost wise, as its older tenured Professors retire.

      Also, Stars and Celebrity Systems are always corrupting to a degree, and buyers far too often are behind the curve in discerning it, hence another reason for the judicious course. Great teachers is what UVA needs foremost. Given the system you describe, I suspect there may be many “Great Teachers and Budding Stars out there who have yet to be given the chance. This also fits in with Dr. Sullivan’s characterization of a Strong Faculty working smart and together to leverage up a great Educational Experience. A confluence of events may be bringing the Stars into alignment in a way that allows UVA to rebuilt a great faculty along the lines of the past, as described by Dr. Sullivan . In short, another problem might be flipped into a wonderful opportunity, if UVA does it the right way.

  14. larryg Avatar

    well then the retirements might also be a way to appropriately downsize and focus on the areas where you do want to attract big rep professors.

    Through all of this – there have been comments and perceptions that UVA does not suck state resources and has a substantial endowment that funds the enterprise. The question is – are they eating the principle or not?

    This is complicated by the opaque finances of UVA of which I wonder if even the BOV really is privy much less able to force choices and directions when it comes to actual money spent or not.

    Is that what Dragas was really concerned about? Is the BOV more titular than functional when it comes to budget?

  15. saunders Avatar

    By any ‘business model’ a company that has more customers demanding its services than it can possibly serve is a success. So UVA is a great success right now. They do have to cope with a state that wants a great University without paying for it. (Even in the current troubles most states with highly ranked public Universities pay much more than Virginia (California is the exception, but wait for a couple of years and the rankings will catch up.)) But whatever the solution it will not come by jumping off a cliff and hoping you can fly. And in an organization the size of The University it is more likely to be 100 small solutions than one big one. I have confidence that Teresa Sullivan along with hundreds of the sharpest minds in Virginia can solve this problem if the Board will stay out of the way. Otherwise we will have to hope that Tech can keep its quality high.

  16. larryg Avatar

    re: business model and more customers.

    well a successful business with a lot of customers does not sell the product for less than it costs to provide and does not expect taxpayers to make up the difference.

    I seriously question just how much taxpayer money should be “invested” in higher Ed without encouraging bloat and waste.

    I’d rather see State Aid limited purely to qualified students who lack sufficient resources to pay – and perhaps capital projects – i.e. long-term infrastructure.

    we’re not talking about an impoverished operation here – we’re talking about one that has grown substantially and grown beyond the available funding and refuses to prioritize and make choices and instead calls for more money from the State.

    We seriously cannot be doing that. At some point, UVA – and each University and College in Va has to tackle head on – the financial challenges because increasing taxes on Virginia’s for this essentially means money redirected from personal finances and the private economy into Higher Ed – that cannot or will not control costs.

    UVA is not going to go anywhere and it may well be that UVA might actually need to be smaller – and better – rather than bigger and bloated.

    Nothing like a shrinking budget to eventually force choices – not necessarily a bad thing.

  17. In terms of cost per unit, nothing beats 100% state funding in universities. Back in the day when City College was free to qualified NYC residents, the amount spent per graduate was miniscule. Of course no air-conditioned dorms, scholarship women’s lacrosse players, etc etc. Just rooms, chalkboards, hard-working teachers and hard working students.

  18. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    JDRippert says above: “Ms. Sullivan’s incremental approach is just fine and dandy as long as the University doesn’t find itself in a financial jam. What do the forward models tell us about that?”

    Reply: We are already in a financial jam and no one yet has built a model to get us out. Why? Because our leaders have, among themselves, for years, kicked the problem down the road then buried it from us under a rug. That needs to change. Now!

  19. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Richard says above: “Sullivan knows the issues. The question is how to go about it. I don’t think a Wisconsin-style confrontation with academics (eliminate tenure, eliminate classrooms, cut the Classics and art, cut the budget to the bone) will work here …”

    Reply: I agree. Indeed the Wisconsin Style “solution” (as you describe) would be an unmitigated disaster, and totally unnecessary. Solutions done right need not result in a zero sum game. Quite the reverse, they should bring exponential benefits to all stakeholders. And I believe they can.

    Richard also says: “I think we need to give Sullivan a chance … and without the interference of the BOV, who showed themselves to be out of touch, poor managers, and worse politicians, perhaps Sullivan will be able to get the things that need to be done, done.”

    Reply: I agree re giving Sullivan the chance. Indeed she needs all possible help. But that does not include neutering the board. Rather the Governor needs to empower the Board so it can wisely authorize and enforce solutions. And, however blotched their effort to date, the courage shown by the “Past” board’s recent Statement is the springboard to clearing up a long gathering, yet hidden, storm. They deserve great credit for that statement. And shame on the University community (us), if we fail to act on it to the full degree of its merits.

  20. larryg Avatar

    I’m still curious. What list of problems should Sullivan be fixing, in what priority order and in what timeframe?

    What I see is some sort of vague marching orders without real defined/measurable goals.

    Do we really expect change when the specs for it are so ill-defined?

    Let’s say for instance, we go another two years and some folks say Sullivan is doing fine and others again want her out. I would ask – on what basis would she be judged and by whom?

    this is starting to sound like a like of dust and little else… a “false start”.

  21. WahooLaw Avatar

    If Dragas had a shred of class, she would recognize the truth of the argument made here and step aside, as Kington did. That she has not suggests that there is an “it’s all about Helen” problem in addition to her other issues. By staying involved, she makes it harder for a constructive discussion to take place.

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