College Guide


June 21, 2012 10:00 AM What the UVA Firing Was Really About

By Daniel Luzer

The recent decision of the University of Virginia’s board of visitors to fire beloved president Teresa Sullivan after only two years was mysterious. Though eventually one board member issued vague corporate blather about how she wished the institution to “reach its fullest potential as a 21st century Academical Village, always rooted firmly in our enduring values of honor, integrity and trust” no one really seemed to know what the problem with Sullivan was.

Now we have some idea. It’s about computer college. According to an article by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed:

E-mail messages were flying among leaders of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia in the weeks leading up to the ouster of Teresa A. Sullivan as president of the university. The e-mail messages show that one reason board leaders wanted to move quickly was the belief that UVa needed to get involved in a serious way with online education.
The board leaders traded articles in which various pundits suggested that online education is the only real future for higher education — and the e-mail messages suggest that board members believe this view. On May 31, for example, Helen Dragas, the rector (UVa-speak for board chair) sent the vice rector, Mark Kington, the URL for a Wall Street Journal column about online education. Dragas’s subject line was “good piece in WSJ today — why we can’t afford to wait.” The column, a look at the MOOC (massively online open course) movement in higher education, has the subhead: “The substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive) can vastly increase access to an elite-caliber education.”

Sullivan, apparently, was not so enthusiastic. According to the article she “had expressed skepticism about the idea that it was a quick fix to solving financial problems, and that she viewed distance education as having the potential to cost a lot of money without delivering financial gains.”

Earlier in the week a major funder of the university apparently explained that Sullivan had to go because UVA needed a leader who embraced “strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning.”

But perhaps it wasn’t that Sullivan lacked something; maybe it’s just that she didn’t like this online plan, probably because it’s not very good.

While there’s perhaps some potential for online courses to reduce the cost of college, it will also reduce completion rates and exacerbate inequality. It’s also not clear that such education can really even cut cost; good online education requires good technology, updated all the time. That’s really, really expensive.

Furthermore, while it’s true online college might perhaps help with jobs training, it’s unlikely such an education method will really be all that attractive to the sort of high-achieving, affluent students the University of Virginia wants to continue to attract.

The University of Virginia is the flagship state university of the Old Dominion State. Online education isn’t going to go away, but Virginia appears to have plenty of lower-tier public institutions that can experiment with computer college. Isn’t it time to concentrate on UVA’s strengths?

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Snarki, child of Loki on June 21, 2012 11:49 AM:

    This incident looking more and more like "attack of the pointy-hair bosses".

  • maryQ on June 21, 2012 1:14 PM:

    This is far more disturbing that the conspiratorial thinking that emerged in the long vacuum of information that followed the abrupt resignation.

    Let me see if I understand this. Because sometimes, when something seems bat-sh*t-crazy to me, it is because I have not understood things. Other times, though, it is because it is bat-sh*t-crazy.

    So, some non-experts get all excited about an article in WSJ, and want to radically alter the character of one of the nations oldest schools. The chancellor, who can fairly claim some expertise in the world of higher education, is less than impressed, and does not embrace their strategic (in their minds, at least) non-plan. So she has to go? Because, she is a "strategic planner"?

    Is it that she hurt their feelings?

    OK, I am going to go stab myself to death with a butter knife now, because I can't handle a world where such things happen.

  • Tyro on June 21, 2012 6:31 PM:

    For a bunch of people so mired in corporate-speak, you'd think they'd understand something about the concept of "branding" and how associating your brand with an enterprise normally associated with poorly-reputed "career colleges" will undermine that brand.

    They should stick with high cost "business training seminars" and pricey professional Master's degrees that trade on the name associated with the university, like every other big-name college is doing these days.

  • stinger on June 21, 2012 7:29 PM:

    Not only does good online education require good, expensive technology, it requires good teaching. And online-specific teaching, in each discipline. That means people. Expensive people.

    As an instructional designer, I know that online teaching needs both specially formatted content and the best in available technology. It ain't cheap.

    Or, as captcha would say, "itsnetw respect". Respect mah internets!

  • Steve P on June 21, 2012 8:42 PM:

    O for the days when you could pacify these morons with 50 yard line seats and a jock to sniff.

    Yes, I can't think of anything more likely to raise the prestige of Jefferson's gift than a bunch of ads on basic cable with actors proclaiming "I'm a Cavalier!" and endorsing a college you can attend in bed.

    This must have been their business model:

  • T-Rex on June 22, 2012 8:13 AM:

    "Strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning." If you cut through the jargon, you get, "We want someone to just plunge ahead with this and not bore us with a lot of thinking about it." Which is precisely the same attitude that the Bush administration took toward the Iraq invasion. They refused to discuss budgets or even engage in war gaming, because doing so would mean admitting that maybe the war wouldn't be over in a week and that the Iraqis wouldn't greet us with showers of rose petals.

    Now, will someone please listen to me? I've been saying this for years. A distance-learning lecture can certainly reach a lot of people, but SOMEONE STILL NEEDS TO GRADE THE FREEEEAAAKIN' EXAMS AND PAPERS! Someone needs to be on the other end of the phone for advising and paper conferences. This is not an easy way to let one professor teach ten thousand people, unless it's graded entirely in the form of multiple-choice exams scored by computer, and no one ever bothers to check for cheating. Distance learning is just another version of correspondence courses, which actually worked quite well until too many people started signing up for them. Then, the instructors couldn't keep up. Whether a course takes place in a brick and mortar classroom, on paper, or over the web, it will work if students can get personal attention and won't if they don't. It really is just that simple.

  • Rick B on June 22, 2012 3:48 PM:

    It looks like the ultra-wealthy whackos are no longer happy with simply controlling the conservative Republicans and forcing their wild hares on conservatives. Just because they can spell 'university' they imagine they know what a good university needs to change into for the future.

    It's really time to pass a draconian inheritance tax. At least the consistently ignorant inheritors of massive wealth should be kept out of the public policy arena unless they have some demonstrated skills beyond signing a check.

  • VaLiberal on June 22, 2012 9:50 PM:

    The BOV meets on Tuesday. Anybody want to bet on the outcome?
    The comments are on-point and much better than my theory which was that Dragas didn't choose Sullivan for the job in the first place and has used her overbearing personality to force a change. Dragas' term is up July 1st, but if the unnamed major UVa funder is also a major campaign donor for the Republicans, McDonnell will probably reappoint her. And UVa will be the loser.