Three Areas of Focus


Teresa Sullivan
The controversy this past June made at least two things abundantly clear: The University of Virginia is in the national spotlight, and the UVA family cares passionately about its University. In answer to the question I have often been asked—"Why did you stay?"—my answer is clear: I stayed because UVA is a great university, and I have unfinished work to do as its president.

During my first two years at UVA, I focused on making foundational, infrastructural changes related to our budget system, evaluation processes, quality program in patient care, state and federal government relations, and other core functions. Now is the time to use our strengthened infrastructure to set the course for the University's future.

The issues that surfaced during this past summer's controversy—progressive erosion of funding, intensified focus on efficiency, the promises and risks of emerging technologies—are the same issues facing nearly every university, especially the public universities. The spotlight now shining on UVA means we can be the model for how a university survives and thrives in this challenging era.

Leading change is in our institutional DNA. Among UVA's many great traditions, innovation is our founding tradition. Just as Thomas Jefferson redefined higher education two centuries ago by creating a secular university based on "the illimitable freedom of the human mind," we can redefine higher education for our century by overcoming the challenges facing higher education while preserving and improving the distinctive quality of a UVA education. This is the unfinished work that I returned to the presidency to do.

Higher education is increasingly differentiated. The elite private institutions will use their financial strength to solidify their high rankings. Meanwhile, many public universities will become commodity providers that enroll tens of thousands of students on expansive campuses, or leverage new technologies to drive student enrollment via price and convenience.

We are uniquely positioned in this highly differentiated world. UVA combines the intellectual resources of a major research university with an intimate undergraduate education. Unlike liberal arts colleges that mainly synthesize and digest discoveries made elsewhere, discovery and innovation are central to UVA's mission. And unlike some research universities where faculty focus principally on their own research, we make our students partners in the discovery process. We straddle the ground between these two modes in American higher education. Our faculty is committed both to teaching and to the pursuit of world-class research and scholarship.

Our commitment is to offer the best residential undergraduate education in America, enriched by its connection to faculty research and to our great professional schools. This is UVA's local dimension, and the Academical Village is the heart of it. But this University must also excel as a global Academical Village whose influence extends worldwide, through students and faculty who study abroad and pursue international research; through technologies that connect us to colleagues elsewhere; and through engagement of our global network of alumni, parents and friends. Our global reach will not dilute the local, residential experience; it will enrich it. We will thrive in both of these dimensions.

Great universities, in both their local and global dimensions, are built on great fundamentals. To drive our aspirations, I believe we need to focus on three priorities immediately.

Renewing the faculty

Great faculty—leaders in their academic fields who love teaching their students—are critical to any university. Renewing our faculty is the first step toward securing the University's future eminence. We face a looming wave of faculty retirements, and we need to hire faculty to keep pace with our plans for modest enrollment growth. But we need to think differently about how we hire faculty. Simply replacing those who retire does not position us for the new fields and new technologies that will emerge in coming years. We need to shape these fields and not merely react to their emergence.

Many of today's big problems and fields of study are no longer organized into the traditional academic disciplines. As we prepare for our future, we may need to recruit professors to join two schools, or expect more of our professors to work in both a department and an interdisciplinary center. To make this happen, our search committees need to think differently about their work. We need to look for transformative opportunities in the human talent we recruit.

Recruiting and retaining the best faculty will require greater resources to compensate them. Partly as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, average faculty salaries stagnated. Then, as other universities have recovered, our salaries have fallen behind our peers. We cannot rely on state appropriations to meet this need, and tuition increases are problematic. Supplementing faculty salaries through endowments is an urgent need, and it needs to be a high priority for the Board as well as for the foundations that support our schools.

We have a great faculty now. Taking these steps will make our faculty greater.

Reinventing the curriculum

As we renew our faculty for the next century, we need to reinvent the liberal arts curriculum to meet the evolving demands of the 21st century. We know that we must offer a broad, liberal education that prepares our students to be critical thinkers, to write clearly and persuasively, and to integrate multiple perspectives before arriving at informed decisions. We must also, however, consider the knowledge and skills our graduates will require once they leave the Grounds. Our alumni can be valuable resources to us as we learn what has best prepared them, and what they see as best preparation for newly hired workers in their own workplaces.

Emerging technologies are changing the way students learn, and maybe even how their brains function. We need to explore the potential of these technologies and use them appropriately. This summer the Faculty Senate, working with the Teaching Resource Center and with funding from the President's Excellence Fund, launched a "Hybrid Challenge" that offers $10,000 grants to professors who develop or redesign courses that combine technology-enhanced teaching tools with face-to-face instruction. We received 41 proposals from faculty members, many of whom have already won teaching awards, and we have funded 10 hybrid courses to begin this fall in systems engineering, biology, mathematics, law, languages and other subjects. These courses will directly affect 1,100 students, and we will assess this experiment and share what we learn with other faculty.

Also this summer, we partnered with online-learning pioneer Coursera to offer five non-credit UVA courses, three from the College and two from Darden, to anyone anywhere in the world, starting in 2013. Alumni who are interested can register for the courses at Founded last fall at Stanford, Coursera's online platform is now used by Stanford, Princeton, Duke, Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins, Penn, Michigan and Cal Tech, among others. Residential education is and always will be UVA's forte, but by participating in Coursera and other experiments, we have the potential to enhance the quality of our on-Grounds instruction while letting interested people worldwide learn from—and about—UVA.

Preparing students for their roles in the global economy means education abroad, Semester at Sea and other programs that take our students into the world, but it also means developing global perspectives within our curriculum. We have recently established new majors in Global Development Studies and Global Public Health, and minors in Global Sustainability, Global Studies in Education, and Applied Linguistics. The MS in Global Commerce offered by the McIntire School of Commerce and Darden's Global Executive MBA program have been great success stories.

Refocusing research and scholarship

We will continue to grow our research enterprise because a robust research program enriches the student experience while leading to discoveries that improve society and boost the economy. To excel, we need to think strategically about our research investments and identify defined areas in which we want to develop deep expertise.

One opportunity for UVA lies in Big Data—the term used to describe the massive, complex data sets that are realities of our modern world. Consider the volume of data being produced daily by our national intelligence services, digital medical records and environmental sensors all over the planet, not to mention the financial markets and the marketing data developed through point-of-sale scanning or by companies such as Amazon. Developing tools to manage, secure, mine and manipulate massive data sets will be a global priority in the years ahead. The ultimate challenge is to convert cumbersome Big Data into useful knowledge.

UVA's existing strengths put us in position to be a leader in this field. The federal government issued a $200 million Big Data research and development initiative this past spring, and private partners are seeking strategic investments in this area as well. In May, we held a Big Data summit at UVA, and we are exploring plans to create a new institute that will bring together our faculty with expertise in this field. I am using a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust to align the development of student opportunities in Big Data with the faculty's research opportunities.

Our strength as a major health care provider not only serves the Commonwealth but also strengthens both teaching and research. Two important research areas for us, biomedical research and its translation into clinical advances, will rely on our established strength in health care. Our Medical Center has just pledged $35 million of its resources to advance research in these areas.

These three areas of focus—faculty, curriculum and research—may seem rather basic to some readers. But the best universities are built on these fundamentals, and no other innovation matters without them.

Although the events in June have brought our challenges into sharp focus, the reality remains that UVA is one of the strongest, best managed universities in the country. We have great faculty, dedicated staff, top students from around the world and loyal alumni whose generous gifts give us stability during economic uncertainty. In Forbes' just-released report on "America's Top Colleges," UVA was named the top state university in the nation. This is just the latest in a litany of rankings that identify UVA as one of the best, and most affordable, universities in the country.

Private support will be increasingly important as we contend with unrelenting financial pressures, and donors are responding: During the fiscal year that ended June 30, we received $245.5 million in gifts, a 7 percent increase over the prior year and a 20 percent increase over 2010. With the campaign total now standing at more than $2.75 billion, we are closing in on our goal of $3 billion. These gifts show that our generous alumni, parents and friends remain committed to their University, and that hard times only reaffirm their commitment.

When historians write the definitive account of the University's evolution during the 21st century, I hope they will view last summer's united outpouring of concern as a catalyst for a period of sustained flourishing, during which UVA continued to offer the nation's top residential undergraduate education while scaling the Academical Village to the global dimension. All of us who serve the University—as administrators, board members, faculty and staff, students and volunteers—should hold out this hope and work together toward its fruition.