The campus of the University of Illinois, one of several top public and private universities that have joined the mass online partnership Coursera. (Robert K. O'Daniell/News-Gazette via AP)

On June 8, the leaders of the university’s Board of Visitors asked for the resignation of President Teresa Sullivan. Among their chief complaints: U-Va. was ignoring perhaps the most significant development in the brief history of online collegiate learning, the vast experiment in global online learning launched by Stanford, MIT and Harvard.

Earlier that day, a group of academic deans at U-Va. had discussed the prospect of entering one of those experiments, Coursera, at a retreat. During the retreat, the university’s arts-and-sciences dean, Meredith Jung-En Woo, asked Philip Zelikow, an associate dean, “to reach out to Coursera and another group to learn more,” according to an e-mail Woo sent to an alumni group last week.

The previous day, June 7, a group from the university’s Darden graduate business school had visited the Coursera offices in Silicon Valley. Dean Robert Bruner was skeptical of the mass online experiment but saw U-Va.’s involvement in Coursera as “a relatively little bet” that could help the university join the “leading edge” in a race into online course delivery, Bruner wrote last week in a blog post.

Now, some in the U-Va. community are understandably perplexed about how, amid all the Coursera conversation, neither the president nor the rector knew that the institution was poised to join the global online movement.

Joining Coursera keeps U-Va. apace with its academic peers in a movement that may or may not represent the future of technologically driven higher education. Mass online platforms such as Coursera give the nation’s top universities a venue to develop courses for their own students and to experiment with digital delivery. The models also position them to keep up with the technology as it develops; the schools are driven partly by the danger that in 10 or 20 years, low-cost online coursework will pose a real threat to classroom learning, at least for large, entry-level general education courses.

There are enough reasons to invest in Coursera and its chief rival, edX, that seven of the universities ranked as the nation’s 10 best by U.S. News & World Report are now involved in one or the other: Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, CalTech, Duke and the University of Pennsylvania.

Four of the 10 top-ranked public universities (actually 12, because of a three-way tie) have joined Coursera: U-Va., Michigan, Georgia Tech and the University of Washington.

Leaders of edX announced today that the nation’s top-ranked public university, Berkeley, has joined their initiative, a move clearly timed to answer the major expansion of Coursera last week. Coursera has 16 partners to edX’s three, but the “X universities” can claim an edge in academic pedigree.

On the day Sullivan was asked to resign, neither she nor Dragas knew how close the university stood to entering into the Coursera partnership. Dragas acknowledged this in an e-mail last week. Carol Wood, the chief university spokeswoman, told me in a note that Sullivan knew only the broad outlines of U-Va.’s online dealings.

“President Sullivan was aware of broad-ranging discussions on this topic, but did not know about the specifics of discussion that took place at Dean Woo’s meeting on June 8,” Wood said. Sullivan was holding her own retreat that day and, later, receiving her marching orders from the rector.

Sullivan had been aware of the Darden delegation traveling to California on a “Tech Trek” as well, Wood said, although she might not have known every stop on their itinerary. “But she did not know about the outcome of Dean Bruner’s trip until later, because, again, the dates align with her dismissal,” Wood said.

At some point after Woo’s retreat — Sullivan doesn’t recall the exact date — the president spoke to her old boss at the University of Michigan, President Mary Sue Coleman, about that institution’s experience with Coursera. Michigan, where Sullivan served as provost, was among the first institutions to join the Stanford partnership.

Sullivan’s own provost, John Simon, checked with his old colleagues at Duke, which was already committed to joining Coursera. Then, U-Va.’s two academic leaders gave their formal blessing to the initiative.