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After the Storm

Prospects for a brighter future

Dan Grogan

On the night of June 29, an intense storm called a derecho pummeled the University and the Charlottesville area with more than an hour of high winds, splintering trees and knocking out power. The battering took its toll on the Grounds and surrounding landscapes, but it was nothing compared to the storm that had swept through the University in the preceding weeks.

In the 17 days of turmoil between President Teresa Sullivan’s resignation and reinstatement, students, faculty, staff, parents and alumni came together in ways rarely seen before. Online and on Grounds, on Twitter and on the Lawn, they stood arm-in-arm in their determination to right the wrong they felt had been committed not only to the University’s president, but to the University itself.

It is hard to recall a time when the University community has been more cohesive, more focused and more committed to concerted action. The president, members of the Board of Visitors, deans and many others are hoping to capture this momentum and use it to move the University forward.

“I believe real progress is more possible than ever now,” said Rector Helen Dragas just before the board’s historic vote to restore President Sullivan to her position. “It is unfortunate that we had to have a near-death experience to get here, but the University should not waste the enormous opportunity at hand.”

President Sullivan echoed that message in an email to faculty and staff two weeks later: “The Marine Corps has a saying about ‘another opportunity disguised as a disaster’… More than I could have ever imagined, our difficulties here have galvanized our stakeholders, both internal and external, in extraordinary ways. We are better positioned than ever before to address the difficult issues facing higher education.”

The storm that hit the Grounds laid bare the daunting challenges the University must overcome if it is to maintain—much less enhance—its current stature. On June 21, as part of a “fuller explanation of the Board’s thinking,” the rector released a statement outlining 10 “very high hurdles that stand in the way of our University’s path to continued success in the coming decade.” Many of those same issues appeared in an internal strategy memo President Sullivan sent to the rector and vice rector in May, and which was made public during the crisis. In it, she candidly laid out the most serious problems facing the University’s academic programs, including a “reputation gap” in core disciplines.

Building a Faculty for the Future

“We have somehow been overachieving,” President Sullivan told the leaders of the Board of Visitors in her academic strategy memo. “In a number of critical areas we are reputed to be better than we actually are.”

Recruiting and retaining superb faculty—not only gifted teachers and mentors but also intellectual leaders—will be essential to closing this “reputation gap.” On top of that challenge, UVA faces the looming reality that many of the professors on which it has built its reputation will be retiring over the next five to 10 years. Indeed, as much as half of the faculty could turn over by 2020. Finding the right people to succeed this cohort will not be easy, especially given the University’s exceptional commitment to students.

“Every institution says that it prizes teaching, but the University really does,” President Sullivan observed. “Virginia’s unique undergraduate experience cannot be maintained with the average PhD being produced in American universities.”

This past year, her administration found the funds to give faculty a 2 percent pay raise, the first in four years. While many other institutions are in similarly tough financial straits, the University will have to do more to prevent raids on its faculty, particularly its top academic stars. “But at the end of the day, money alone is not enough,” the president said in a statement to the Board of Visitors at the height of the ordeal. “The faculty must also believe that they can do their best work here. They must believe in the future here.”

To that end, she wants to give faculty more opportunities to take on new intellectual challenges. As a model, she points to the University’s pioneering Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, which came on the scene 20 years ago and has enabled some of UVA’s best scholars in English, history, architecture and other fields to use digital technology to add new dimensions to their work. Having such innovative programs on Grounds helps faculty see that they can grow as leaders in their disciplines without leaving Charlottesville.

Teresa Sullivan, moments after the Board of Visitors approved her reinstatement on June 26 Cole Geddy

Putting the University Experience Online

Perhaps the most high-profile academic issue to surface in the recent crisis is the rapid emergence of online courses offered by elite institutions, and the fear that UVA hasn’t moved fast enough to catch the wave. “Bold experimentation and advances by the distinguished likes of Stanford, Harvard and MIT have brought online learning into the mainstream, virtually overnight,” Dragas wrote in her 10-point statement. “The University of Virginia has no centralized approach to dealing with this potentially transformational development.”

As it turns out, the University was just weeks away from announcing an agreement to partner with Coursera, a firm started by two Stanford faculty members, to offer massive open online courses—aka MOOCs. The four courses, to be offered this fall, include physics professor Lou Bloomfield’s ever-popular “How Things Work,” as well as classes in history, philosophy and business administration. Available for free to anyone with a computer and Internet connection, MOOCs have been embraced by top-tier institutions as a way to reach out to tens of thousands of people around the globe, including alumni.

The flurry of discussions about online instruction drew attention to the larger matter of how the University should make better use of technology to enrich the academic experience and perhaps even speed up the time it takes to earn a diploma. UVA already offers eight degree programs online, mostly at the graduate level, but President Sullivan’s leadership team is envisioning—and implementing—new possibilities. Among them: more “hybrid” courses that blend in-class and online components.

With a “hybrid challenge” program, the University is encouraging faculty members to combine technology-enhanced teaching tools with face-to-face instruction. Out of 41 proposals, 10 received grant awards this year. A typical class format is a “flipped” course: Students prepare for class online, perhaps by watching a lecture. Then they join the professor in person to delve into the material at a deeper, more complex level.

“The aim,” said the president, “is to ensure that our students get the highest and best interaction with the faculty.”

Building a Competitive Advantage

Is the University of Virginia in danger of slipping? Has it slipped already?

UVA holds a top-25 spot in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, and among public institutions, its undergraduate programs remain ahead of all but those of UCLA and UC-Berkeley. But the University’s place in these and other standings appears tenuous to some, which became another hot topic in the brief but tumultuous interregnum in June. So was the fact that the University still hasn’t caught up with the research powerhouses in science and technology, despite substantial investments in these fields in recent years.

At a basic level, it’s a matter of scale. Highly ranked academic programs tend to be large, with a critical mass of stellar faculty. The University’s choice to remain relatively small, to opt for quality over quantity and to emphasize close student-faculty interaction puts many of its schools and departments at a competitive disadvantage.

President Sullivan sees a solution in more crossdisciplinary collaboration. New and expanded interdisciplinary centers that bring together top scholars from across the Grounds will produce not only groundbreaking work but also the concentrations of research firepower necessary to win national recognition. Moreover, they will generate the intellectual excitement that the president sees as essential to convincing faculty that Virginia is the place to be.

The process of creating such “virtual institutes” is already happening through the University’s OpenGrounds initiative, which was created to catalyze cross-school, cross-program collaboration on complex issues in areas such as sustainability, design, entrepreneurship and globalization.

An example of how crossdisciplinary collaboration can help unravel a knotty problem is the UVA Bay Game, a large-scale simulation of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Supported by Phillipe Cousteau, an OpenGrounds Fellow and the grandson of explorer Jacques Cousteau, the game allows players to take on the roles of farmers, land developers, watermen and other stakeholders to test the long-term impacts of their decisions. Faculty and students in environmental sciences, architecture, law, business, public policy, education and systems engineering have worked on the project. Another model program is the Quantitative Collaborative, which draws together scholars who manipulate huge sets of data to identify trends and predict outcomes in economics, politics and behavioral science, among other fields.

In the president’s view, investing in such crossdisciplinary initiatives creates “robust targets for faculty recruitment, leverages our existing strengths, minimizes our disadvantages such as small scale and provides our students with knowledge and skills particularly suited to this century.”

Financing the Academic Enterprise

The University’s financial challenges came into sharp focus during the leadership crisis, especially the dwindling share of state support in its revenues. Over the past dozen years, state funding per student on a constant-dollar basis has plummeted 46 percent, from $15,300 to $8,300. State subsidies now amount to only 10.2 percent of income in the 2012-13 budget for the University’s academic division. Add in the Health Center and the College at Wise, and that figure drops to 5.8 percent.

Compared to last June, donations to UVA fell by half after Sullivan’s resignation, then doubled when she returned. UVA had its best June for fundraising since 2008, receiving $44.4 million in gifts. Michael Fitts

Although UVA is renowned for offering a great education at a great value, political and market forces make further tuition hikes a limited option for filling the funding gap. Years of rising tuition rates, coupled with reduced family incomes and other factors, have put increasing demands on the University financial aid program, AccessUVa, which is projected to cost $95.4 million in the coming year.

That means private philanthropy will continue to play a vital and growing role in financing the University. On that front, the picture has brightened considerably since the Great Recession of 2008-09. The University’s campaign has brought in an average of $24.6 million in new commitments per month during Terry Sullivan’s tenure thus far, and with help from a spike in contributions following the president’s reinstatement, the campaign posted the best total for a June since 2008, raising $44.4 million. The University’s cash flow from philanthropic sources reached $245.5 million this past fiscal year, a 7 percent increase from 2010-11 and a 20 percent increase from 2009-10.

In her 10-point critique of the University’s strategic direction, Rector Dragas expressed appreciation for the generosity behind these numbers, but also cited the need for the articulation of a more “specific vision and plan” for securing support from alumni and friends. The president agrees.

“It is important for donors to understand that we have to be quite focused on the things that make us strongest,” President Sullivan said in a July 2012 interview with this magazine. “The decline in state appropriations makes us less competitive in faculty salaries. We can offset that if donors will support endowed chairs and funds for faculty research. This is what we need to compete for the best talent in the academic marketplace.

“I also want to reassure donors that they are making a sound investment when they give to UVA,” she added. “We are not in a financial crisis. We have AAA bond ratings from all three rating agencies [Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch]. Those agencies don’t give out triple-A ratings lightly, and they don’t give them to institutions that are unstable.”

Staying True to Core Principles

Within and outside the University, many have viewed the outpouring of support for President Sullivan—from students, faculty, alumni, parents, staff and many others—as a manifestation of UVA’s culture of civility and trust, which in the end carried the day. In her strategic vision for the years ahead, the president acknowledges the value of benchmarking against peer institutions, but she also insists that we “set our own sights” and stick to the University’s core principles: excellence, honor and self-governance; innovation and collaboration in the pursuit of knowledge; and leadership for the public good. “These principles,” she told the board in June, “shape how we choose our academic strategies, how we teach our students and prepare them, and how we bring the knowledge, energy and commitment developed in the University to the benefit of society through service.”

Bill Sublette is a former director of University publications and development communications, and a past editor of this magazine.