Letter to the Editor

A better way to think about U-Va.’s ‘crisis’

The “crisis” at the University of Virginia has been extensively covered by the media. But the portrayal of the Board of Visitors’ work as a battle between Rector Helen Dragas and President Teresa Sullivan does a terrible disservice to the full engagement of the board and to the significant issues facing the university and all of higher education.

One recent example is the portrayal of the president’s goals [“At U-Va., tensions flare over control,” front page, March 2]. In truth, setting goals for the universityinvolved input from multiple board members, including key committee chairs. As one who submitted suggestions, I believe the key to progress is holding an institution accountable to measurable goals, with associated sub-goals and metrics. At a complex institution such as the University of Virginia, there are many important areas to measure. In my experience, a culture of accountability leads to excellence.

As a recently appointed board member, I keenly understand the significant challenges we face. Last summer’s controversy was partly fueled by a letter from the faculty expressing concern about languishing compensation. Technology is also quickly changing how universities operate. U-Va. also must address major issues regarding its $1.6 billion hospital and health system. With decreasing reimbursements from Medicare, Medicaid and the National Institutes of Health, the School of Medicine and the hospital face the prospect of markedly decreased revenue.

This, then, is a better way to think about U-Va.’s “crisis.” The word itself comes from the Greek word “krisis,” which means “to decide.” We must decide how to fund future excellence in teaching, research and patient care. There are no easy answers.

State support appears to have little future upside amid other demands. Philanthropic dollars, while generous, are often earmarked to support specific programs, people or buildings. The university’s research base has fallen with federal funding declines. Sequestration and inevitable deficit reduction will exacerbate this trend.

Increasing tuition has too often been the answer to financial issues, but raising tuition simply passes on our problems to the students, who must deal with increased debt even as they face dim employment prospects. Here’s a scary statistic: In the past 25 years, college tuition grew 1 1 / 2 times faster than the cost of health care. At the University of Virginia, undergraduate tuition has more than tripled since 2001.

As leaders, the board must ensure financial integrity going forward so that both academic excellence and affordability can be delivered. As a public university, the University of Virginia is chartered to serve the families of the commonwealth. As a national leader, U-Va.’s voice should be prominent.

The president and her staff have been working productively with the rector and the Board of Visitors toward those goals. A four-year financial plan has been proposed. Rigorous strategic planning for the university is underway. Experiments in new technologies have begun.

Although we don’t always agree on the best course or optimal time frame for instituting change, vigorous dialogue leads us to thoughtfully decide. As some would say, “Don’t waste a crisis; use it.” That is what we are doing. The University of Virginia is a stronger institution today than it was a year ago. It will be even stronger in the months and years to come, as we focus on the issues, the facts and the possible solutions.

Edward D. Miller, Baltimore

The writer is a member of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors.

 
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