Consensus builder

Reinstated president reaches out to board

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Print this page by Robert Powell

The drama that gripped the University of Virginia a year ago has died down, but the ripple effects remain.

U.Va. made national news on June 10, 2012 in a way that would not have pleased its founder, Thomas Jefferson. Three members of the Board of Visitors, led by Rector Helen Dragas, unexpectedly forced President Teresa Sullivan to resign. After 16 days of student, faculty and alumni protests, plus a threat by Gov. Bob McConnell to dismiss the entire board, Sullivan was reinstated.

Dragas kept her position, too, being reappointed by McDonnell in July to a new four-year term on the board. Despite some grumbling, the General Assembly approved her reappointment during its last session. (Dragas’ tenure as rector ends June 30.)
The reasons behind the board’s attempt to remove Sullivan remain murky other than “philosophical differences” with the pace of change at U.Va. in response to a number of challenges, including the proliferation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and increasing competition for top faculty.

Sullivan, however, remains committed to her leadership style. “I think that fundamentally I remain a collaborative leader, and I believe the best way to lead a university is at least by being transparent and seeking some level of consensus,” she says.

Nonetheless, the president and the board are trying to resolve their differences. “I think the board and I are working really hard to improve the areas of deficiency,” Sullivan says. “On my part, I’ve made an effort to reach out to every board member, to have an opportunity to talk to them, to understand better what their concerns are.”

One of Sullivan’s concerns is the rapid turnover on the 17-member board. “I was elected president in 2010.  Only four of those board members remain on the board now,” she says.

“We’re always in the position of trying to educate a group of board members about a very complicated institution without a lot of expertise to draw on from other board members.  I think that’s a structural problem.”

As result of last summer’s turmoil, U.Va, was issued a warning by its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). U.Va. will produce a report in August outlining steps it has taken to comply with SACS rules on governance. That will be followed by a campus visit in September by a four-member committee, which will report its findings to SACS. “I’m optimistic that that report will say we should come off warning,” Sullivan says.

Before coming to U.Va., Sullivan was provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan. Prior to that appointment, she was executive vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University of Texas System.

Virginia Business talked with Sullivan on April 29 at her office on the U.Va. campus in Charlottesville. The following is an edited transcript.

Virginia Business: How is U.Va. doing in attracting faculty and retaining them?

Sullivan: We’ve had basically five years of stagnation in salaries.  I’m really pleased that in February the board of visitors passed a resolution to set a goal of raising our faculty salaries to the 20th position in the [Association of American Universities,] … the leading research universities in the U.S. and Canada.  We are the only Virginia institution in the AAU …. At the time I asked the board to pass this, we believed we were 26th in salaries in the AAU.  Their latest salary survey has come out and we’re 34th.  That is something that we have to work on. 

We need to work on faculty salaries for two reasons.  One is that we need to keep the people that we’ve got here.  The second is that we’re going to have a whole lot of retirements in the next seven to 10 years.  That’s not because people want to leave.  It’s because of the natural force of aging … So we’re going to have to go out in the market and hire great faculty to come in here.  When you go out in the market, you’ve got to pay the market wage … That’s going to be a challenge for us.

VB: What is the endowment right now?

Sullivan: The total endowment stands right now at about $5.5 billion … Some of it is in the various foundations, and a little of it is with the hospital and so on.  You could do us a great service by explaining how an endowment works.  The endowment is not a piggy bank … because we’re required to preserve it for future generations.  We have to conserve the principal.  What we can do is to spend the earnings on it … Most donors earmark what they want their money to go for.  The amount of unrestricted endowment earnings is actually pretty small, but the restrictions are often very reasonable.  This endowment is to support a scholarship for this type of student.  This endowment is to help pay the salary of a professor in this field.  All of that helps our operations budget, so I’m happy to have it.

VB: How is the university doing financially?

Sullivan: First of all we’re doing very well benchmarked against our peers in terms of earnings in the endowment, so that’s working very well.  We just had our AAA bond rating reaffirmed by all three agencies.  There are only two public institutions in the U.S. with a AAA from all three. [The other institution is the University of Texas System.]

VB: What is the status of sanctions imposed by SACS last year? 

Sullivan: We are on warning from SACS.  SACS is the regional accreditor authorized by the U.S. Department of Education for higher education in the Southern states.  Warning is a step below probation.  If we flunk warning we go on probation, but we have no intention of flunking warning. They have found us [in violation] of basically two standards of accreditation.  One of these is about board governance and one of these is about faculty governance.  [A SACS official told The Associated Press U.Va. was not in compliance with one rule prohibiting a minority of governing board members being in charge and another rule saying institutions should have a policy clearly identifying the faculty’s role in governance.]

They have asked us for a monitoring report, which will be due around the middle of August.  That’s a written report which talks about what we’ve done to demonstrate compliance with those standards.  There will be a visiting committee sent here.  I believe they’re coming Sept. 16-18.  The visiting committee will be headed by a university president not from Virginia … Those four people will come here, and they’ll talk with who they want to talk to, and they’ll look at the documents they want to look at and they will write a report to SACS.  I’m optimistic that that report will say we should come off warning.

VB:How would you characterize your relationship with the board now?

Sullivan: I think the board and I are working really hard to improve the areas of deficiency.  The legislature has passed a new bill about boards of [visitors] sponsored by Delegate [Steve] Landes [of Weyers Cave. Among other things, the bill requires boards to give university presidents annual performance reviews.] We’re working now to conform the board’s bylaws with the provisions of that law, but the board has really committed itself to seeking to adopt best practices of other boards.  They’ve made a lot of effort this year to do this.  On my part, I’ve made an effort to reach out to every board member, to have an opportunity to talk to them, to understand better what their concerns are.

VB:Would you say that your leadership style has changed since last year?

Sullivan: I think that fundamentally I remain a collaborative leader, and I believe the best way to lead a university is at least by being transparent and seeking some level of consensus.  At the end of the day, you will never get complete consensus, and you will have to make a decision, but I don’t want people to think that decision was arbitrary or capricious.  I want them to understand where it came from.  Every day I make decisions somebody doesn’t like, but I try to do it in such a way that we build confidence, that over the long run decisions we make here will be based on evidence.  They’ll be based on balancing the interests in question and will be made for the right motives, which is the best interest of the institution.

VB: Do you think there should be some change in the way that board members are appointed in Virginia? 

Sullivan: I think there’s going to continue to be a lot of discussion, not just at U.Va., but also in other public institutions about the nature of governance.  Sixty percent of our alumni live outside the Commonwealth of Virginia, and what we have heard this year is a real sense of disenfranchisement from them.  They also contribute 60 percent of our capital campaign.  They believe that they are important stakeholders in the university and that they don’t have enough ways to express their voice.  The University of Vermont recently changed their form of governance, not to take away the right of the governor or legislature [to appoint trustees], but to add some members of their board who come out of the alumni community. 

I think one of the big structural issues with our board is the short length of term, which is only four years.  With 25 percent of the [17-member] board rotating every year, that means that the average level of experience in the board is pretty low. 
I was elected president in 2010.  Only four of those board members remain on the board now.  I was re-elected last summer, and only 11 of those board members are still there.  So you can see what rapid turnover there has been.  We’re always in the position of trying to educate a group of board members about a very complicated institution without a lot of expertise to draw on from other board members.  I think that’s a structural problem. 

VB: [Where is higher education headed with online courses?]

Sullivan: We’ve been in a yearlong strategic planning process, and I will say that there is very little appetite here for abandoning what we believe is our greatest distinctiveness, which is the quality of the residential experience here.  I also think … there is no substitute for this opportunity to mingle on a 24-hour basis with the people who will be the leaders of your generation, not only in the United States, but in other countries, too. 

A view of higher education as being just the hours you spent in class is a pretty impoverished view of what a university is about.  When I talk to alumni and ask: What’s a great memory you have of being on Grounds?  I do not hear about sitting in a particular classroom and hearing a lecture.  What I hear is: “One time my professor asked me to come and have coffee with him and what he said changed my life.” 

The advantage U.Va. gives is that students here work closely with faculty members, not just in the classroom, but all day long.  That’s the metaphor of the “academical village”: the student room next to the faculty pavilion.  It’s that 24/7 immersion.  That’s what I think is really valuable.

Now, on the other hand, what does the Internet give us?  Well, it gives us the opportunity to bring to our students materials … that are rich and are based on image or based on audio … all kind of things that are not just a book.  We haven’t stopped using books, but we also assign other things now.  The other thing we’ve done this year is that we have intentionally thought about when to “flip” classes.  A flipped class is a class in which the professor has recorded the lecture and put it online.  Then, you spend that valuable class time working with a professor and applying that material.

We do have some … online degree programs.  We do Produced in Virginia, which is a completely online engineering program that community college graduates can take.  They have to complete an AA or an AS in a relevant field like engineering technology and then they can take the second two years online…

The Faculty Senate approved another degree that will be completely online.  This has not gone through the whole completion process.  It has to be approved by the board and by [the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia]. This would be the bachelor of interdisciplinary studies in health professions [designed for students with associate degrees who already are licensed and working in medical fields.]

That brings us to the MOOCs [massive open online courses].  We have six MOOCs this year, with 250,000 people registered for them.  We’ll see how many finish.  Philosophically, we are not going to tie ourselves exclusively to any one main platform.  We have one professor [offering a course] in Udacity, for example, so we’re having conversations with other platforms because this isn’t just about the technology; it’s about other things, too.  The six MOOCs that you’ve heard about mostly are with Coursera, which is one of the platforms.  The professors who are teaching these MOOCs say that it’s changing the way they teach here on Grounds.  In many cases, they’re teaching the same course on Grounds and in the MOOC, so they’re bringing their own on-Grounds students into interaction with these students from around the world, which is a great enrichment of the learning experience for the students here on Grounds. 

We believe it also helps our brand.  It gets U.Va. better known around the world, and it showcases some of our best faculty.  We also know that alumni are attracted to this.  Some of our courses have alumni who have signed up.  It’s a way for them to stay in touch with the Grounds and maybe take a course they’re interested in …

MOOCs are not free to us.  They’re free to the student.  It’s costing us about $50,000 a course to develop.  We have to make a promise to Coursera in advance about how long we will keep the course active.  We’re thinking about that as we sink the cost into developing it.  I think it’s proving to be a great faculty development tool, and I think it’s also enlarging the ideas of our students about what they can do.

VB:Do you ever see MOOCs as a revenue stream?

Sullivan: Well, it’s been difficult to figure out exactly how that would work. Coursera, of course, is interested in this, and the agreement you sign with Coursera is: If there’s ever any revenue, it gets split with them, which is not unreasonable because they’re providing the 24/7 technical support and all the rest of it. 

We have a special issue with the MOOCs, and that’s the honor system.  It is known that, in the online environment, cheating is rampant.  It’s been difficult to develop ways that you actually know who’s taking an exam.  That’s an obstacle for us.  We don’t want to give out U.Va. credit without knowing that those students had to meet the same high expectations that our current students online and on Grounds have to meet.  So that’s an issue.  I think there are other issues involved in whether this ever becomes financially possible or not.  I will tell you candidly for a lot of the people taking this in the Third World … they can’t afford anything. 

An issue that I probably will pose to our faculty is the extent to which they would like to accept MOOCs perhaps in lieu of a prerequisite for a course.  If you had not taken a prerequisite, but you had a certificate of completion of a MOOC, would a faculty member let you do more advanced work there?  That seems to be one way that our own students could make use of it. I think a lot of that remains to be determined.

VB: What is your vision for an elite public university?

Sullivan: Well, my vision is that the public part is more than financing.  We are public in our DNA, no matter where the money comes from.  If we went to the point that we had zero dollars from the legislature, and we had to raise all the money somewhere else, we would still be public because we are raising our students to be, as Mr. Jefferson said, “educated citizenry for the republic.” 

My vision is that University of Virginia is a place that uniquely produces leaders for the next generation; intellectual leaders, but also leaders in every other sense that you can think about it:  People who have prepared themselves because they’ve had the experience of self-governance here, because they’ve been formed by the honor system, because they’ve had opportunities to rub minds with some of the greatest minds of their generation and of other generations … and that we can keep it going with such robustness and sustainability that they can leave here hoping that their children and grandchildren can come here, too. That’s a reasonable hope because we have sustained a great university through our generation for the generations to come.

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