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as greater faculty teaching loads, new technologies, using buildings more effectively and eliminating unproductive or outdated courses, it’s no wonder that a board concerned with spiraling costs could not continue working with a president who approached business as usual, hoping for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.