The Washington Post

Teresa Sullivan's road at U-Va. won't get any easier

BOULDER, Colo. - Teresa Sullivan's reinstatement  as University of Virginia president is a rare event in higher education these days.

View Photo Gallery: The university’s governing board voted unanimously to reinstate Teresa Sullivan, whose ouster as president plunged the campus into turmoil and prompted a student protest.

But the struggles faced by Virginia are common among public universities: declining state funding, rising tuition rates and challenges presented by technological revolution. Those struggles won't go away at U-Va, even with the kiss-and-makeup between Sullivan and her governing board.

For some 18 years, I've lived in the hometown of the University of Colorado's flagship university. I started teaching there as an adjunct in 1999, and in 2005, I took a full-time job there as a journalism instructor.

During those years, the two women who held the president's hot seat were basically forced out of office.

In 1994, a group of deans and the vice chancellor demanded President Judith Albino's  resignation on what became known as the "Black Friday Ambush"  because Albino had invited the media to what the deans thought would be a private meeting. Albino refused to resign that day, but her rocky relationship with the faculty and other administrators eventually led to her resignation less than a year after the "ambush."

Ten years later, in 2005, CU President Betsy Hoffman agreed to resign, unable to survive a football recruiting scandal and the controversy over an ethnic studies professor who wrote a controversial essay about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 

Sullivan clearly has more support among U-Va. faculty and administration than either Albino or Hoffman had at CU, so maybe she won't meet their fate down the road.

But it's a difficult road Sullivan and other public university presidents are on, be they female or male.

Last week, NPR had a great conversation with Eric Kelderman of the Chronicle of Higher Education about the decline of state funding at public universities. U-Va. may be a state university, but only 6 percent of its funding comes from the state these days. When asked about other universities in similar financial situations, Kelderman mentioned the University of Michigan and, yes, CU.

As state funding declines, appointed or elected governing boards must look elsewhere to pay the way. That's one reason for the high tuition increases that then force more and more students to take out loans to pay for college, saddling them with debt for years to come.

University presidents must often be more fundraisers-in-chief than simply academic leaders and administrators. Universities depend on wealthy donors to construct new buildings and renovate old ones. They call on those of more modest means (myself included) to kick in money for scholarships and special programs to help low-income students get a college education. At CU, the College of Arts and Sciences holds an annual bicycle ride as a scholarship fundraiser. 

Meanwhile, the educational landscape is changing with the technological revolution. Private universities such as MIT and Stanford are offering free online courses to all comers, perhaps easier for them when students are paying even steeper tuition and donors have even deeper pockets.

Teresa Sullivan serves on as University of Virginia president, for now. But her job - and that of any public university president - will only get tougher.

Sandra Fish teaches journalism at the University of Colorado and has reported on politics in Iowa, Florida and Colorado. Follow her on Twitter at @fishnette



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