The Washington Post

Teresa Sullivan’s resignation: How should universities adapt to the modern world

Looking beyond the campaign for a moment, one story getting a lot of local attention today is the resignation of Teresa Sullivan, after serving as president of the University of Virginia for only two years.

It’s not surprising that this story would hold interest for the Washington region, given the prestige of Mr. Jefferson's university.  But, if initial reports are true, this story has deeper implications for universities and colleges across the country.

Reportedly, Sullivan is leaving because she and her trustees disagree over how to confront the challenges facing not only Virginia but many public and private institutions of higher education: declining state aid, an aging tenured faculty, a bad economy and how to adapt its value proposition in a digital age.

While our nation has had a debate recently about how students will afford to pay for college, we have yet to have a broad-based discussion on what students are getting for their money. Interestingly, one of the areas of disagreement that led to the resignation was over whether U-Va. should move into a more digitally oriented curriculum.  

We live in an age where most information is free — or about to be — and where it is almost universally accessible.  Every course taught at MIT, for example, is available for free online to anyone. Many of us, of course, would need several courses in how to understand an MIT course before we could benefit from this offering.

Universities are not going away, and sitting alone with Google as your instructor is no substitute for the complex social and intellectual transactions that take place in college.  But universities are facing the same revolution that transformed the music and newspaper businesses— indeed, all the content businesses, of which they are a part.

This will take a while to all shake out, but in the meantime prepare for more shake-ups.


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