University of Virginia is falling behind its competitors, consultants warn in report


University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan (center) smiles for a picture with graduating students Brittany Smith (left) and Elizabeth Grizzle after the Valedictory Exercises at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Va., on May 18. (Joel Hawksley/The Washington Post)
May 21, 2013

A higher education consulting firm had a blunt message for the University of Virginia’s governing board Tuesday: Despite the university’s vaunted stature as a “public Ivy,” school and state leaders have been complacent in the past 15 years and U-Va. is now falling behind many of its competitors.

Consultants from the Baltimore-based Art & Science Group, which U-Va. hired for the analysis, compared the university to nine public and private universities and interviewed many U-Va. representatives and “thought leaders in higher education.”

“The characterization that we heard from a number of people goes something like this: ‘U-Va. is a wonderful, important, premier place, but it doesn’t feel as driven as others,’ ” said Benjamin G. Edwards, a principal at the firm.

U-Va. leaders are using the assessment as they formulate a long-term strategic plan, which is due to the Board of Visitors by this fall.

Edwards recommended that U-Va. further invest in the undergraduate student experience, immediately hire more faculty and find innovative ways to distinguish itself. The consultants also concluded that U-Va. could charge significantly more for in-state undergraduate tuition without losing its place in the market.


A rain-soaked umbrella provides cover as guests wait in line outside John Paul Jones Arena for the Valedictory Exercises at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., on May 18. (Joel Hawksley/The Washington Post)

In interviewing industry leaders, Edwards said, consultants did not ask any questions about governance. But he said that nearly everyone volunteered the view that the current system at U-Va. is flawed and a “significant, ongoing threat.”

Last June, U-Va. governing board leaders ousted President Teresa A. Sullivan, then reinstated her after a swell of outrage. Edwards recommended that U-Va. administrators become “public figures” in the national discussion about the future of higher education. There is enormous pent-up energy at U-Va., he said, and the faculty are anxious and eager for direction.

“Many fear that U-Va. is allowing to slip away the opportunity created by last summer’s leadership crisis, to assert in a very public way what it stands for and where it’s headed,” Edwards said. “Observers see U-Va.’s problems as both unique and representative of the problems faced by many universities. . . . Many are anxious to see how U-Va. responds.”

This school year, numerous committees have discussed the future of the university, drawing on comments from more than 10,000 people. Sullivan provided board members with a preview of the plan Tuesday, proposing that U-Va. focus on five priorities in coming years:

●Improving the undergraduate experience by, among other things, increasing student-faculty interactions, encouraging study abroad and creating a “total advising” system that provides a variety of academic, professional and personal mentors.

●Assembling a distinguished faculty, especially as current professors near retirement, and strategically picking research priorities.

●Breeding a culture of leadership across grounds for students, staff and faculty.

●Pioneering new ways of teaching, especially as technology evolves.

●Developing a sustainable organizational model that advances the quality of the school while keeping it affordable and accessible.

Sullivan said there are no plans to venture into areas where the university is not already somewhat established. She also said there are no plans to increase the number of graduate students without first securing research for them to work on, or to dramatically expand enrollment through online undergraduate programs.

“In general, we did not see size as a lever to pull here,” Sullivan said. “But we could pull it, if you want to. We could be the size of Ohio State. But I’m not sure we want to be. There are economies of scale that you get, but I think you lose much of what makes us distinctive as U-Va.”

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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