What An Existential Threat Looks Like

by James A. Bacon

For a glimpse of the disruptive future of higher education, University of Virginia stakeholders who are up in arms over the resignation of President Teresa Sullivan should enroll in a class taught by David Evans, a popular computer science professor and winner of the Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council on Higher Education in Virginia.

You won’t have to go to Charlottesville to attend Evans’ introductory computer science class, in which you will learn how to build your very own search engine. No, you can just sign up through Udacity, an online educational service that provides access to courses taught by world-renowned university instructors.

For free.

And there’s no practical limit to how many students can enroll.

Udacity is the brain child of Sebastian Thrun, who earned his Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Bonn, migrated to Stanford University and wound up working for Google. He wanted to make his class on artificial intelligence available to a wider audience than the Stanford student body. After promoting the class online and through an Artificial Intelligence conference…. Well, I’ll let the Wall Street Journals Andy Keeler tell the rest of the story:

In the end, there were 160,000 people signed up, from every country in the world, he says, except North Korea. Rather than tape boring lectures, the professors asked students to solve problems and then the next course video would discuss solutions. Mr. Thrun broke the rules again. Twenty-three thousand people finished the course. Of his 200 Stanford students, 30 attended lectures and the other 170 took it online. The top 410 performers on exams were online students. The first Stanford student was No. 411.

Mr. Thrun’s cost was basically $1 per student per class. That’s on the order of 1,000 times less per pupil than for a K-12 or a college education—way more than the rule of thumb in Silicon Valley that you need a 10 times cost advantage to drive change.

So Mr. Thrun set up a company, Udacity, that joins many other companies attacking the problem of how to deliver the optimal online education. “What I see is democratizing education will change everything,” he says. “I have an unbelievable passion about this. We will reach students that have never been reached. I can give my love of learning to other people. I’ve stumbled into the most amazing Wonderland. I’ve taken the red pill and seen how deep Wonderland is.”

Twenty-three thousand students at a cost of $1 per head? Now, that’s disruptive change. That, to borrow a phrase from Helen E. Dragas, rector of the University of Virginia and the heavy in the resignation of President Sullivan, represents an “existential threat.” Not just to Mr. Jefferson’s University, I hasten to add, but an entire higher ed establishment that is plunging millions of students into debtor’s bondage in order to pay for runaway tuition and fees.

Concludes the WSJ‘s Keeler: “This is going to disrupt public schools and teachers unions and universities and tenured professors and so on, Mr. Thrun effectively interjects: ‘The dialogue always focuses on what’s going to happen to the institutions. I’m totally siding with the students.’”

I’m not defending the manner in which Dragas handled Sullivan’s departure from the university. As I’ve made clear in previous posts, she has a lot of questions to answer. But the hang-wringing angst over Sullivan’s treatment has ignored the big picture. Higher education is in crisis and is reaching a tipping point. While Teresa Sullivan was obviously a very intelligent and thoughtful woman — read her “academic strategy” memo, and you’ll probably agree — but there is no indication in the public record that she has displayed an appropriate sense of urgency about the need to reinvent UVa’s education model. Incremental change won’t cut it at UVa, or any other institution.

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  1. jlanderson Avatar

    From now on, every time you post that UVa’s “business model” is broken, faces an existential threat and must change the very nature of what it means to be a public university, an institution of higher learning … I’m going to respond with this:

    The University’s “business model” is not … repeat, NOT … broken. It is the Republican-dominated General Assembly of Virginia, averse to anything that even remotely resembles a tax increase that is broken, dysfunctional and in need of serious overhaul.

    These tax-hating — indeed, GOVERNMENT-hating — Republicans refuse to support transportation, refuse to support public primary and secondary education, raid the retirement fund of tens of thousands of state employees to balance their budget, refuse to properly compensate public safety workers and public school teachers … basically refuse to do their jobs all in the name of adhering to a rigid orthodoxy of “No New Taxes … No Taxes Period” at the expense of good government.

    Yes, there’s an “existential threat” here, but it’s an existential threat posed to the entire Commonwealth of Virginia by the lunatic wing of the Republican Party that’s calling the shots in Richmond.

    And you know what, Jim? I say all this as someone who FORMERLY identified himself as a Republican. No more, though.

    And for the record … could online play a role, be part of the educational mix for the University? Sure. But fundamental to the higher education experience is being part of the physical campus — or The Grounds, as we prefer — sitting in a classroom, with an instructor and fellow students. Interacting with each other, not sitting and staring at a computer screen.

    1. I’m not saying that UVa needs to become like Udacity. That would be folly. But it does have to respond to the challenge that Udacity and other online ventures pose to traditional higher education. If you think the problem is skin-flint Republicans in the General Assembly for cutting state aid to higher ed, I’m sorry to say that you’re deluding yourself. Virginia has cut higher ed support *less* than most other states. Even if that were not the case, it’s irrelevant. If Udacity can cut the cost of higher ed courses by a factor of 10, then a couple thousand dollars more or less per student in state support is not going to change the equation. UVa and other higher ed institutions need to define their role in the world that is fast approaching… or fail.

    2. FreeDem Avatar

      >The University’s “business model” is not … repeat, NOT … broken. It is the Republican-dominated General Assembly of Virginia, averse to anything that even remotely resembles a tax increase that is broken, dysfunctional and in need of serious overhaul.

      So the solution to UVA’s problem, and the problems of other public universities in Virginia, is for the General Assembly to raise taxes to throw more money at archaic institutions, where the cash will do little to nothing to improve educational output but will flow into the pockets of ineffective academic bureaucrats?

      I see, I see.

  2. jlanderson Avatar

    Respond? Yes. Do it in a way that is distinctly within the character of the University? Yes. Give in? No.

    And yes, Virginia’s dwindling support for supposed “public” universities has occurred over a longer period of time and been less than that of other states, but as a whole, the lunatic fringe of Republican Party that’s been on the ascent for the last 15 to 20 years IS the cause of basically every problem facing the Commonwealth: transportation, public schools, social services and the crisis at the local government level where localities are now giving Richmond “Aid to the Commonwealth.”

    And anyone who thinks otherwise is seriously deluding himself.

    Ayn Rand belongs on the bookshelf of any well-read individual, simply so we can understand what’s going on inside the heads of many bankers and economists such as Alan Greenspan and John T. Allison, late of BB&T. Any legislator who has a copy of any book by the woman on his desk should be booted from office.

    1. Jlanderson, It sounds like you live in PeterWorld (a place I name, in all fondness, after co-blogger PeterG) where the only hard choice facing policy makers is how much to raise taxes, and whom to raise them on. With all due respect, that is the height of intellectual laziness. There are options to raising taxes, although vested interests in both K-21 and higher ed are sure to fight them tooth and nail.

      1. jlanderson Avatar

        No, Mr. Bacon, I don’t inhabit Peter-world. I’m simply a resident of the commonwealth who believes in paying for what we expect government to do and what has a duty to its citizens to do.

        Government has responsibilities. It has things it is required to do. And the way to pay for it is through taxes. What is so darned for some people to accept about? You want good, well-maintained roads? You want well-trained teachers and cops? You want good drinking water and other utilities? Then you pay for them with taxes.

        A family member of mine who died 10 years ago this coming November was a legislator for almost 40 years, serving on the Senate Finance Committee and a budget conferee. He was as conservative and as frugal as they come, but he knew government has a role in a civilized society and that you pay for that through taxes. You simply make them progressive and keep the lean and frugal. He would be shocked and disgusted by what his successors in the General Assembly have done to this great commonwealth. Absolutely disgusted.

        Virginia was, is and always will be a low-tax state. The data and comparisons with other states bear that out; just check JLARC and the state auditor’s own statistics.

        And intellectual laziness?? C’mon. Why the ad hominem attack? Have I attacked you and accused you of intellectual rigidity that refuses to see or admit the legitimate duties of government and the legitimate role citizens and their taxes play in civil society?

        1. My abject apologies for using the term “intellectual laziness.” I abhor ad hominem attacks, and yet I engaged in one. I appreciation your thoughtful remarks on this blog…. even if I disagree with some of them. You are contributing to the discourse.

  3. eschmitzva Avatar

    Agreed. You have defined an existential threat. Ignore at ones own peril.

    Forgive, then, this side discourse that Ms. Dragas & Co. have compelled so many of the stakeholders in UVA to preoccupy ourselves. You see, for all the urgency commanded upon us by the BoV, transforming Mr. Jefferson’s University, or any academically respected US institution of higher learning, into an academic automat, and students into automatons, doesn’t make a whit of difference if the means of doing so destroys the core.

    Until such time as the current BoV shares their vision with something more substantive than the sublimely ridiculous “strategic dynamism” thus far offered up by the late great Peter Kiernan, its all, to borrow an older coined techno-term: “vaporware”. We’ve been led down this road before.

    We don’t disagree here, so much, really. It takes both vigor, and rigor. You cannot cut corners. You probably cannot avoid shedding blood, sweat, and tears along the way. (And who would presume it could be done any other way?) But you sure as heck can do it smartly, systematically, with determination, vision, and common sense, not to mention civil and open participation.

    Otherwise that Brave New World of technological promise is a junkyard. It doesn’t really matter if it costs a buck a head, if it worth all of two cents. Except this: losing 98 cents is more affordable than wasting four years of tuition.

    Indeed, the only losers in the current market are those investing upwards of $100K in something that they have no chance of leveraging into a meaningful existence. That is a helluva wage to pay for one of life’s most basic lessons.

    As it happens, UVA’s own B-school (Darden) knows all about such existential threats, and has tried to be at the forefront. Other than producing some miscreants along the way — GIGO — Dean Bob Bruner and his team are doing, I believe, a pretty decent job.

    The answers lie somewhere in the muddled middle. I am thankful that you spared us any defense of the “Dragas/Kington” approach to creating crisis to manage change. I am also heartened that a good many stakeholders in UVA have been aroused from their doldrums by something other than Foxfield races. Now maybe we can get to work.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka


    Holy Moly!

    Now that Jim Bacon has found out that his MIT-Harvard e-learning model isn’t exactly what he imagined it to be, he’s finding other ones.

    1. jlanderson Avatar

      Well, I’d much prefer to inhabit PeterGWorld than Bacon’s Ayn Rand Lala-land any day of the week.

      Bacon seems so intent on taking his “new thinking” on such issues as transportation, zoning, land use and development and applying it to public education and higher ed, and it just does NOT work.

      I actually find much of his thinking on those aforementioned topics to be interesting and refreshing. But that thinking translated to public education is downright scary.

  5. Darrell Avatar

    I don’t remember the name of a single teacher. I do remember some geriatric math professor who took unexplained shortcuts to derive the answer to a problem, then acted amazed when most of his students dropped out of class. I also remember a foreign born teacher who should have been in a language class instead of accounting.

    I most of all remember re-taking those courses online with no issues at all.

    This ‘shared experience in a classroom’ idea is heavily overrated in a just in time world.

    1. jlanderson Avatar

      Have no idea where you went to school, but I remember MANY of the professors I had in my six years of undergrad and grad years at UVa. From TAs in discussion groups to institutions like Raymond Bice, Roert Cross, D.A. Williams, Ernie Mead, Norman Grabner, Steve Railton, Ken Elzinga, Larry Sabato, Tim O’Rourke and many, many others.

      And sitting at home, staring at a computer screen, just does not compare.

      1. I had some awesome professors at UVa, too. They had a tremendous impact on me. I also believe that there’s no substitute for the face-to-face exchange of ideas. But, then, the inflation-adjusted cost of attending UVa back then was half, if not a third, of what it is now. In an ideal world, a residential campus setting is the best. But look where that’s leading us to. Millions of students are graduating owing tens of thousands of dollars. Some will spend their lives paying off their debts. The model is broken. We need alternatives.

  6. Have to agree with jlanderson on this one.

    I am a professor at UVA and will give you three examples of problems.
    1. Online course is great, but when we have online course students don’t show up.
    2. When students don’t show up, they only get what THEY can or want to get from the online course.
    3. So when I introduce ideas and situations even slightly different from what is in the course materials, they can’t get it.

    If I see a UVa graduate who has BA, BS, MS, PhD, MD degree with high online course GPA with that kind of academic training, I would NEVER hire them in my business.

    The bottom line is that just simply trying to adopt online course because you have to fight for financial reality of the future IS PROBABLY GOOD for money. BUT IS IT GOOD FOR education from #1-2 public school, probably not.

    Do I think the BOV was correct? Partially. Do I think that they behaved in a fiduciary manner, ABSOLUTELY NOT! I think BOV was too busy satisfying their own blown-up ego of power.

    BTW, who decided that only successful businessman (and woman) can be a member of BOV? Do we believe that politicians who appoint them and the business people who get appointed have such esteemed sense of righteousness that they will behave objectively and balanced way… This clearly shows they do not. Lastly I would kindly suggest to the ENTIRE BOV of UVA to RESIGN so that GOV of Va can start fresh. If they want to let go of the president Sullivan, we should probably fire the ones who hire her two years ago. WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND>>><<<

  7. Scamp, you raise legitimate issues. However, I would ask you, how long did it take to perfect the traditional model of classroom teaching? (It wasn’t perfected when I was at UVa 40 years ago. A lot of kids skipped a lot of classes back before there were online classes!) Online teaching is a recent phenomenon. It will take time to work out the kinks. Does the lack of perfection mean we should give up the effort? Of course not!

  8. larryg Avatar

    Sounds like if someone can learn the material online and cannot afford the traditional path – that he/she is invited to matriculate elsewhere.

    I think it is up to UVA as to what they want to be and if they don’t want to be part of the evolving methods of learning…. then so be it.

    I think that is shortsighted and brings to question what the purpose of higher education is (or is not) but perhaps this is a question not best resolved between a University President and a BOV rector without some “help”.

    It could be that UVA wants to not evolve and maintain tradition. My question is – in making that choice – what choice should taxpayers make?

    It’s not a quid pro quo but in order to justify taxpayer dollars, the mission of the University has to be one in which average Virginians still have opportunity and not just those who have wealth.

    UVA has to decide what kind of University they want to be in a world that is fast changing..

  9. Back in the day, there was a book called “UNIX for People.” I taught myself a lot of stuff that’s akin to “build your own search engine.”

    I don’t regard what I did as the equivalent as an “education.” This disappointing blog, like so much of the discourse around the topic, simply has no understanding of “education” as distinct from job training or technological advancement.

  10. larryg Avatar

    The world we live in now harshly differentiates “education” and “job training”. UVA is not forced to abandon tradition in order for it to evolve and adapt options for people who want to learn – for whatever purposes an education (or job training) benefits them.

    There are lots of Colleges around that prefer to focus on something specific as “what they do”.

    There is nothing wrong with that as there are lots of options for students of all manner to find what suits them best for that time in their lives.

    But the bigger question here IMO is what is UVA’s primary mission and does it want to basically specialize in certain kinds of educations – and charge accordingly (as other private-style institutions do) or does it seek taxpayer money to pursue a mission and if so… does taxpayer money come with strings in terms of mission?

    Va taxpayers do not fund many fine non-public institutions and their mission is keyed to their constituency and what their constituency is willing to pay to get what they want.

    This is not just a discussion for those who think UVA should do a particular mission – it’s about whether or not – you want it to remain a public institution that offers things that are essentially subsidized so that a quality education is available to those without wealth.

    What the traditionalist are essentially arguing in my view is to serve only those who want a traditional education but they want taxpayers to foot the bill. Not sure you can have it both ways.

  11. Darrell Avatar

    Education vs. Job Training

    Job Training is why people go to college.

    Education is what they receive when they get the student loan bill for picking the wrong degree path.

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