Dan Grogan

On the morning of June 10, an email from UVA Rector Helen Dragas announced President Teresa A. Sullivan’s resignation. The news was more than unexpected; it was almost unbelievable. Shocked faculty, students and alumni quickly began contacting each other, trying to understand what had gone wrong.

One alumnus who received a flurry of emails and calls was James F. Jones (Col ’69), the president of Trinity College in Connecticut. “I had as many messages about what was going on at the University of Virginia as I did about all my other involvements in American higher education, including as president of Trinity,” he says.

The flood of emails speaks to the intensity that UVA’s alumni feel for their alma mater, but also to the tinderbox of emotion surrounding America’s universities these days. “[Sullivan’s resignation] was the talk of the little world of college and university presidents, and still is,” Jones says.

UVA’s leadership crisis this summer became not only the subject of intense scrutiny but ground zero for debate about the problems facing higher education. Many of the issues raised at UVA are ones affecting flagship schools across the country: diminished state support and beleaguered budgets; politics and philosophical divides; rapid demographic and technological change; and heightened competition from private institutions for faculty and students.

As William G. Bowen, a renowned education leader and former president of Princeton University, says: “It’s clear that what happened at UVA was reflective of pressures felt throughout higher education, particularly at public universities.”

A Different Era

To understand the pressures facing modern flagship universities, you first have to understand how much they’ve already changed.

Consider UVA. Fifty years ago, the school was home to roughly 4,000 undergraduates and—aside from the schools of education and nursing—most of them were white males (today’s student body is 55 percent female and 28 percent minority). Tuition and fees totaled less than $500, with the state picking up a significant portion of the overall tab. The federal financial aid system was in its infancy, a host of research universities were just getting their start and the Internet was decades down the road.

Today, UVA’s enrollment has more than tripled, reaching nearly 14,600 undergraduates last year, and its admission rate has dropped to a slim 28 percent. A record 28,258 students applied for a spot in the Class of 2016.

As significant as the changes at UVA are, competition for admission has risen even more dramatically at other state flagship schools. Increasingly selective places like Ohio State University, the University of Florida and the University of Georgia were within the reach of average students only 20 years ago.

In the early 1990s, though, lawmakers in a number of states grew concerned about “brain drain.” The best students were leaving for colleges in other states and not coming back—and in a knowledge economy, that spelled economic decline. So, legislatures rolled out programs, like Georgia’s renowned Hope Scholarship, that made their flagships all but free for top students. The scholarships were hugely popular with middle-class voters and filled public campuses with the brightest students—making flagship universities more desirable than ever.

The Financial Picture

But that success cuts both ways. As lawmakers look to close budget gaps, flagships are a tantalizing place to cut. After all, most state agencies can’t increase revenue. Top state universities, on the other hand, can hike tuition and still fill their classes many times over. They attract out-of-state and international students paying close to private-college rates. And they enjoy support from generous alumni and secure major federal research grants.

The catch, of course, is that the federal government demands that research dollars go to research. Donors have their own wishes, and they usually don’t involve keeping the lights on. And politicians, along with the boards that answer to them, are reluctant to increase tuition or see more seats go to students from outside their state.

That coincides with an increasing focus on not only getting more students into college, but getting them out with a degree on time. President Barack Obama has set a goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. Focused on economic competitiveness, many governors across the country have set similar goals.

In Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell worked with the General Assembly to set a goal of 100,000 new degrees over 15 years, with a particular focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

“What I recognize in my own life is, without having had the opportunity to achieve several undergraduate and advanced degrees, I would never have been in a position to run for governor,” McDonnell said in a July interview with this magazine. “And so I believe that expanding that opportunity to more and more Virginians is an appropriate goal.”

To support that effort, he worked with the General Assembly to increase funding for higher education by about $100 million a year. Much of that goes to community colleges and less-selective four-year institutions, which will do the heavy lifting when it comes to enrolling and graduating more Virginians.

UVA did get an $8 million increase from the state for the 2012-13 fiscal year, in part to support enrollment growth as it adds 1,500 students over the next five years. Those spots were an answer not only to the governor’s goal, but to legislators in Northern Virginia who threatened to lower the percentage of out-of-state students if more of their constituents couldn’t get into the state’s premier institution.

Still, the University faces major challenges. Even as UVA found some money for salary increases and other creative ways to better compete for top talent, wealthier private universities threaten to raid top faculty. Out-of-state families are already contending with tuition that is three times what in-state students pay. And competition for clinical revenues in the hospital does nothing but increase.

Those issues, while tricky to navigate, are at least not new, says President Teresa Sullivan. “One factor that is new,” she says, “is growing awareness of the federal deficit, which puts pressure on federal funding, including the risk of sequestration of federal funds in January.”

Federal funding is a major source of financial aid, research dollars and funding for the hospital. The next year, it seems, could turn up the heat on what already feels like a pressure cooker.

A Troubling Pattern

Helen Dragas Cole Geddy
The University of Virginia is certainly not the first place to see the pressure boil over into a public fight. The budget situation in California is so dire that universities have hiked tuition, slashed course offerings and told many students they may not graduate on time. That has touched off massive student protests and pitted faculty unions against what they see as administrative bloat.

William C. Powers, president of the University of Texas at Austin, nearly lost his job when he repeatedly clashed with the university system’s board in a push to raise tuition. He survived, following an outpouring of support from faculty members, alumni and the very students whose tuition he was planning to hike.

Likewise, Robert N. Shelton, former president of the University of Arizona, found himself at odds with his state’s board of regents about just how much his university could cut without compromising academic quality. State appropriations had plummeted—and the regents, facing political pressure to keep tuition low, weren’t willing to raise it by much.

Last summer, facing dramatic cuts and feeling hemmed in by red tape, Shelton told the Chronicle of Higher Education he was running out of creative ways to do his job. “The sword gets dull and the shield gets a few holes in it,” he said. “And you start to think that maybe it’s time for someone else to try.” With a résumé littered with top academic jobs, he left to become executive director of the Fiesta Bowl.

That same summer, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, left her post, following a failed attempt to gain more independence from the university system and the ability for Madison to set its own tuition. And a few months later, Richard Lariviere, the University of Oregon’s president, lost his job over a similar push.

There were echoes of each of those conflicts in the June events at UVA. But such visceral discord at the top administrative levels of UVA was still surprising to most. While there are certainly limits to its autonomy, UVA was already free from much of the red tape other flagships were fighting. Its $5.3 billion endowment and sizable out-of-state enrollment provide a decent cushion. And it is renowned for the strength and rigor of its undergraduate education.

That made the abrupt change in leadership all the more startling.

“The Virginia board does not seem to have followed the normal processes that a board and chair would typically follow,” says Hunter Rawlings, president of the prestigious American Association of Universities, of which UVA is a member.

“It takes a long time to build great universities, but not to diminish them,” he cautions.

The Pace of Change

A main issue leading up to what Professor Larry Sabato has called “the recent unpleasantness,” though, was one of perspective. Some board members became anxious that top administrators were not moving quickly enough to implement new strategies. In her remarks to UVA deans and vice presidents on June 10, Dragas said, “The Board feels strongly and overwhelmingly that we need bold and proactive leadership on tackling the difficult issues that we face. The pace of change in higher education and in health care has accelerated greatly in the last two years.”

Sullivan has called herself an “incrementalist.” In her address to the BOV on June 18, she stated, “There has been substantial change on Grounds in the past two years, and this change is laying the groundwork for greater change. But it has all been carefully planned and executed in collaboration with vice presidents and deans and representatives of the faculty. This is the best, most constructive, most long lasting, and beneficial way to change a university.”

Nationally, everybody seems to agree that public flagships must evolve to remain great. The tension is found in questions of exactly how, and especially how quickly.

“The need to adapt to dramatic change—and the changes are more dramatic than I’ve ever faced in my time—is not something universities can ignore,” says Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education, the main association representing all the nation’s colleges and universities.

Many high-profile commentators—journalists, think tanks and futurists like Harvard Business School’s Clay Christensen—view much of higher education as being in a position similar to newspapers at the dawn of the Internet, their model shifting underneath them as they continue with business as usual. Nowhere is that cast in more stark relief than in discussions of technology.

Innovation and the Importance of Faculty Independence

Teresa Sullivan Cole Geddy
Proponents of rapidly expanding online education see it as a way to reduce costs, expand access and reimagine how students best learn. Others, including some faculty members, worry that online education is not yet ready for prime time and is being pushed as a way to cut faculty jobs.

The latest darlings of the online education movement are MOOCs, or massive open online courses. Most are offered in partnership with tech-savvy, elite colleges—think MIT, Stanford, Harvard—for free and for no credit. Most issue a certificate of completion, which indicates some level of competency but wouldn’t necessarily help a student toward a degree.

“The strangest thing about this MOOC obsession is the idea that something that very wealthy private institutions offer for free, at a loss, as a service to humanity, must somehow represent the magic numbers in the higher education lottery,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, Robertson Professor in media studies and chair of that department at UVA, wrote in a widely circulated blog post. “It’s new, it’s ‘innovative,’ and it’s big, the thinking goes. So it must be the answer.”

Emails between UVA Rector Helen Dragas and former Vice Rector Mark Kington seemed to show their belief that UVA was missing out on a revolution. Faculty were somewhat taken aback by the board’s anxiety, given that UVA has for 20 years been a leader in digital education, particularly in the arts and humanities.

Just a few short weeks after President Sullivan’s reinstatement, UVA announced that it was joining Coursera, which hosts online courses for a collection of elite colleges, offering four courses from the Darden School and the history, philosophy and physics departments.

The partnership had in fact been in progress for months, with faculty and staff members working independently to make the deal happen. The announcement served as a reminder that universities are a collection of people, many of them—by design—operating much more freely than would employees in real estate, marketing or government.

Gary Rhoades, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, says that faculty independence is what fosters innovation that fuels not only the educational enterprise but the market. “In the case of research universities, a central part of the role of the faculty is creating value through their intellectual work,” he says. “They are not just working with undergraduates, but also graduate students and the private sector, and they are focused on society’s pressing problems.”

President Sullivan stresses the importance of faculty and even administrative independence. “Some people believe that everything of importance that happens on Grounds happens with my knowledge, consent and direction,” she says. “They think that being president of a great university is like being CEO of a closely held corporation. In fact, the success of the University depends on the independent initiative of thousands of people and groups of people—faculty, staff, deans, departments, research centers, hospital teams, librarians and students. My leadership role is significant; I set the tone for dialogue and the vision for the future. But what is most important for me to do is to empower and encourage the leadership of many others.”

Public Perception

Public and political scrutiny isn’t likely to wane, especially as tuitions rise and the national student loan balance passes the much-talked-about $1 trillion mark. The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges plainly states: “The public demands greater accountability—particularly regarding student learning outcomes and escalating tuition and fees—and elected officials at both state and national levels have intensified their scrutiny of higher education.”

Last year the Department of Education issued new rules to hold for-profit colleges accountable if their students do not find employment to pay back student loans. Some higher education pundits see this as a chance for lawmakers to consider setting similar regulations for all schools that receive federal funding for student loans. There are fresh questions, too, about what students are getting for their money.

A recent book, Academically Adrift, sent shock waves through higher education when it stated that 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college, sparking heated debate in the national media.

So what is a university president to do in the face of public scrutiny, reduced state and federal funds, pressure to keep tuition rates low, ideological differences about the pace of change, and anxiety about new technology and online education? One simple answer: recognize that, like politics, all problems are ultimately local.

Too many universities rely on “strategic imitation,” Rhoades says, when what they need to do is play to their own particular strengths.

President Sullivan says she aims to do just that. “No two universities are exactly alike,” she says. “We know that one of our great strengths here is our residential undergraduate education. In addition to a rigorous academic program, our students absorb a set of core values—honor, integrity, service, leadership—that prepare them for leadership in professions and communities all over the world. These qualities make UVA distinctive, and we don’t want to compromise them.”

Elyse Ashburn is a former senior editor for the Chronicle of Higher Education.