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Posted at 01:56 PM ET, 06/17/2012

Is University of Virginia’s ‘reputation gap’ growing?

In a strategic memo that University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan had written before she was forced by the school’s governing board to announce her resignation, she spoke of a “reputation gap” at the elite public institution.

“In a number of critical areas we are reputed to be better than we
University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan. (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG)
actually are,” she wrote in the memo.

If the school had a reputation gap before, the drama over the fate of Sullivan is only serving to widen it.

My colleagues Daniel de Vise and Anita Kumar have been documenting the surprising episode at the Charlottesville school that exploded a week ago when Sullivan, who was hired two years ago and had been a popular president, announced that she was soon resigning.

The reasons that the school’s governing board forced her out were not made public and so rumor filled the empty space where fact should have been made clear by the people behind her ouster. Now, in this comprehensive story by de Vise and Kumar , we learn that it happened in large part because she was resistant to making dramatic program cuts in “the face of dwindling resources” and refused to run the public university like it was a business.

The University of Virginia has long enjoyed a reputation as being one of the elite public institutions of higher educations. In the latest U.S. News & World Report annual college rankings, the school tied for second in the list of public universities and 25th of all national universities.

It didn’t earn this reputation with leaders who approached the school as if it were a McDonald’s franchise. Past leaders smartly built up academic programs and lured top faculty by not starving the enterprise.

The notion of running a school like a business is at the center of school reform sweeping the country not only in higher education, but also in K-12 too, and it is as misguided at the college/university level as it is in elementary and secondary school.

While there is no question that the financial times we live in are forcing different ways to think about and operate schools, the essential notion that should not change is that public schools should be seen not as businesses, but as civic institutions. This changes the approach by which an entity is run.

By many accounts, Sullivan was popular with virtually all parts of the university community — save a segment of the 16-member governing board, including its leader, Helen Dragas, a fiscally conservative developer from Virginia Beach, who apparently had misgivings about Sullivan from the start of her presidency. I wonder why.

Dragas, de Vise and Kumar reported, has in conversations portrayed Sullivan as lacking a long-term vision for the university. Yet, it was in a 12-page strategic memo recently written by Sullivan where she talked about the big problems facing the university and laid out ways to approach them.

The memo said in part:

The University of Virginia suffers from a reputation gap—or, alternatively, we have somehow been overachieving. In a number of critical areas we are reputed to be better than we actually are. Even simple metrics (number of National Academy Members, members of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, International Award Winners) show that we are not as excellent as our rankings imply. Our traditional strengths and international reputation have come from the humanities and the professional schools. The more recent emphasis on science and engineering is interpreted in some quarters as a sign that we will no longer cherish our traditional strengths, and recent political attacks on universities reinforce this fear. Meanwhile, our need to improve STEM fields persists. This situation creates a challenge and a vulnerability that needs to be addressed through substantive and strategic improvements. Some of the changes needed are reasonably easy, such as being much more proactive in nominating our faculty for the honors for which they are eligible. The more enduring improvement will need to be in the area of faculty hiring. Even though we will be searching for faculty who are excellent teachers and mentors, we will still need to find intellectual leaders.

The way the governing board has handled this episode has struck a new blow to what Sullivan had said was already a “reputation gap” at the prestigious school.

Anybody who the school picks to succeed Sullivan is going to have to give long and hard thought to whether this is a governing board that he or she can trust to work with.

In fact, until the board comes clean to the public about exactly why it made the decisions that it did, it is going to be hard for any of us to have confidence in it. Reporters should not have had to interview dozens of people to find out what happened.

This isn’t a personnel matter. This is a matter of public trust.

By  |  01:56 PM ET, 06/17/2012

 
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