June 23, 2012

Change is always hard. But often it’s necessary. And real change is necessary in higher education.

One of the country’s leading universities feels the pain of change right now. Following the ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, all eyes have turned to Charlottesville. The drama unfolding there presents a defining moment for higher education: Incremental change or real innovation? In one camp, the president. In the other, the board.

The old model of increasing budgets and raising tuition — without cutting costs — is unsustainable. Students and their families are suffering. The in-state tuition for U-Va. already takes up nearly 20 percent of the median household income.

That’s why U-Va. should be viewed as ground zero in a national struggle for excellent and affordable education. While the university board’s opaque process in removing Sullivan is regrettable, the board is right to be concerned about the direction of the university.

Higher education is on a collision course. Student debt exceeds credit card debt. Tuition increases at a faster rate than even health care. Studies show that more than a third of students learn virtually nothing in four years of college. And even though the United States spends more per ­higher-education student than any other Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development nation, we have worse results.

Something’s got to give — or everything will.

Faculty and administrators are up in arms, but these same individuals have, for decades, resisted cutting costs and providing accountability. Meanwhile, U-Va. tuition and the administrative share of educational and general expenditures have both jumped by more than a third, each over a six-year period.

Surveys show that the public believes universities can do more and better with less, but most administrators don’t agree. In a survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, almost four out of five college presidents said they were satisfied overall with the state of American higher education.

That kind of complacent thinking has for too long characterized higher education, and that thinking is at the very core of the dispute between the U-Va. board and the president.

Had incremental changes begun a decade ago, presidents and boards today might have the luxury of more gradual reform. But that hasn’t been the case at many institutions across the country that have chronically plugged budget gaps with tuition hikes. That leaves institutions now facing major financial challenges.

Across the country, administrative expenditures have been growing at a far faster rate than instructional expenditures. The data also indicate that, for research universities such as U-Va., the number of classes the average professor teaches has fallen from 2.9 per term in 1988 to 1.8 in 2004. If faculty simply returned to the 1988 standard, a university could enroll many additional students per professor, resulting in thousands more students.

But that kind of rethinking is apparently asking too much. The 2012-13 U-Va. operating budget, released a month before Sullivan’s removal, continues to rely on student tuition and fees and patient revenues from the university’s hospital.

Given the university’s failure to address urgent issues such as greater faculty teaching loads, new technologies, using buildings more effectively and eliminating unproductive or outdated courses, it’s no wonder that a board concerned with spiraling costs could not continue working with a president who approached business as usual, hoping for change later.

Many Virginians are rightfully unhappy — disturbed by the lack of transparency in the board’s decision-making process. But it would be sorry indeed if a focus on process eclipsed issues so crucial for the future of U-Va. — maintaining its financial health and ensuring that a high-quality education remains affordable.

If institutions want to remain strong, their trustees must demand innovative and imaginative changes and be aware of the urgency of their task. If a university president is not moving in the same direction, then difficult decisions must be made and trustees are going to have to bear the inevitable pushback. This is not the first time that trustees have come under fire for trying to do their job: Last fall, trustees at the University of Texas and Texas A&M found themselves under attack when they started to examine faculty teaching loads and the balance of research and teaching.

These board members — who, we should remember, are typically volunteers and devoted alumni — deserve support for acting on the crisis of rising costs and unchecked expansion of programs.

In 2010-11, U-Va. had 71 programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels that graduated fewer than 10 students. Yet Sullivan’s comments underscored her continuing embrace of the status quo: “If we were to embark on a course of deep top-down cuts, there would also be difficult questions regarding what to cut.”

But that’s a president’s job, and whether the U-Va. board decides to reinstate Sullivan or hire someone else, the leader must be up to the task.

In contrast, consider the University of Missouri system, which last year agreed to close 10 academic programs and consolidate 13 others in an initiative to increase productivity and reduce operating costs. Or the University System of Maryland, where regents lowered costs by increasing faculty teaching loads and centralizing shared services.

At the end of the day, the U-Va. trustees have rightly acknowledged that today’s economic reality demands a new paradigm of effective and innovative thinking.

Innovation. It’s what America does. And it’s what higher education must do if it wants to remain the finest in the world. Our students — America’s future — deserve nothing less.

Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit dedicated to academic excellence and accountability in American higher education.