U-Va. board approves basic framework of strategic plan — but not the plan itself

November 15, 2013

More than a year ago, in the aftermath of a nasty leadership crisis, the University of Virginia Board of Visitors ordered President Teresa A. Sullivan to create a strategic plan that would “examine our very purpose and reason for being” and provide “a roadmap for our future.”

A special committee was formed, along with a steering committee and seven working groups. There were town-hall meetings, surveys, memos about emergent ideas and an exhaustive report from an outside consultant. More than 10,000 students, staff members, alumni and others provided input, and many board members listened to more than eight hours of strategic planning presentations.

Then, as scheduled, Sullivan delivered a 45-page draft to the board this fall titled “The Cornerstone Plan: A Strategic Plan for the Academic Division of the University of Virginia.”

On Friday evening, the board voted — and not unanimously — to approve 60 words of that plan.

Those 60 words compose the “five foundational pillars” of the strategic plan, the authoritative but vague goals that leaders hope will guide the historic flagship university through a period when many public research universities are facing unprecedented financial, political and technological challenges that threaten to erode their quality and reputations.

The five board-approved pillars are:

●Enrich and strengthen the university’s distinctive residential culture.

●Strengthen the university’s capacity to advance knowledge and serve the commonwealth of Virginia, the nation and the world through research, scholarship, creative arts and innovation.

●Provide educational experiences that deliver new levels of student engagement.

●Assemble and support a distinguishing faculty.

●Steward the university’s resources to promote academic excellence and affordable access.

The board has yet to vote on the rest of the strategic plan, which includes fuller explanations of what those pillars mean, 15 strategies for fulfilling the intent of those pillars, timelines and metrics for how success will be determined along the way. It’s unclear if such a vote will ever occur.

Sullivan said Friday that she will bring parts of the plan — especially the ones that require extra funding — to the board for approval during the budget-setting process. This could lead to a piecemeal approval over several years or some of the plan being left untouched.

During the university’s last strategic planning process more than a decade ago, then-President John T. Casteen III oversaw the creation of “Virginia 2020: Agenda for the Third Century at the University of Virginia.” In April 2001, the board approved a resolution that accepted “the Virginia 2020 reports” in full because “the relevant commission reports have been circulated and discussed widely, and conform to the Board’s general intentions and ambitions for the University,” according to minutes from that meeting.

In the new strategic plan, Sullivan sets out several ambitious goals for the next five years, including: provide each student with a team of academic and career advisers, mentors and coaches; encourage research that involves several disciplines; make U-Va. a top recipient of research funding; expand the university’s global presence; hire a “faculty of extraordinary achievement and exceptional promise, more evenly distributed by rank, gender, and ethnicity”; and keep U-Va. accessible and affordable for all students.

“If the university is successful in achieving these and other goals,” the plan states, “it will be well placed to secure its position as one of the preeminent Universities in the nation.”

Sullivan also wants to improve the overall quality of U-Va. so that it can climb in national rankings. In the latest U.S. News and World Report ranking of top public universities, U-Va. was ranked No. 2, tied with UCLA. In the ranking of all universities, U-Va. was No. 23, tied with four other schools and lagging behind many private universities such as Duke, Georgetown and Vanderbilt. U-Va. aims to join the top 20 in the next five years.

Several board members have raised concerns about the cost of implementing the full strategic plan or parts of it. Some members have asked Sullivan how much each proposed initiative would cost, where that money would come from and what current expenses the university would cut.

Administrators have been working on calculating those costs, a task that’s often difficult and complicated. As of Friday, the numbers were too premature to publicly share, said U-Va. chief operating officer Patrick D. Hogan.

Helen Dragas, the board’s previous leader, said the preliminary numbers she has seen are “kind of staggering” and could lead to several years of double-digit tuition increases. Another board member described the potential cost as “really expensive.”

Dragas urged the group to delay approving anything related to the strategic plan — even the five pillars — until they could review and discuss the associated costs.

“Let’s tie our goals to our resources,” said Dragas, who eventually abstained from voting on the matter. “Let’s show how we can deliver.”

Sullivan told the board that it is better for the university to have a “dynamic and flexible” plan that can change with economic and political conditions and allow the board to approve major spending increases along the way. But the university will likely need to increase its spending in the next five years, Sullivan warned, especially as the number of undergraduate students rises and a generation of faculty members retires.

Hogan said that administrators are identifying all possible sources of revenue in the coming years — including donations and savings from cutting costs — and that increasing tuition would be a last resort.

The resolution that the board approved Friday concluded with an order for Sullivan and her team to present the board with financial options and recommendations for initiatives proposed in the plan during the university’s annual budget process. The resolution also asked the administrators to “annually report to the Board the progress and results of the strategic plan.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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