On Thursday, Rector Helen Dragas released a statement to the University community seeking to explain her and the Board’s reasoning for Teresa Sullivan’s highly contested resignation. The statement outlined ten challenges for the University in the coming years, challenges that she believes are “structural and long-term” and ones that require a “deliberate and strategic approach” as opposed to Sullivan’s self-ascribed incrementalist methods.
In Sullivan’s address to the Board on June 18th, she defended her incremental approach saying that “sweeping action may be gratifying and may create the aura of strong leadership, but that its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear.”
Dragas disagreed in her own letter, claiming the time for incremental change is over in higher education, especially in the face of daunting challenges like funding and the movement towards online education. She argued that a strategic plan needs to be developed or the University will “continue to drift in yesterday.” Dragas’ letter hinted that the source of philosophical differences referenced in the first communication signalling Sullivan’s resignation was a result of this fundamental difference in dealing with change in higher education.
Dragas’ statement went past this philosophical debate, however, and offered 10 concrete concerns of the Board. Sullivan’s released address to the Board of Visitors, given on Monday, June 18, seemed to answer many of these concerns, though likely outside of the dynamic change Dragas wished to see from the University’s President.
State and Federal funding issues were the first cited by Dragas, who claimed that “the University has no long-range plan” to address the concern stemming from the dwindling revenue sources.
Sullivan’s own statement to the Board also acknowledged this hurdle, however, her address claimed that non-academic programs had been cut while academic considerations were to be instituted in a “new internal financial model” that decentralized the decision making to the University’s deans, who she said know “his or her own school far better than the central administration can ever know it.” Sullivan also remarked that this new model served to make budgeting changes a safer, less political practice, where “one single initiative won’t do serious damage if it doesn’t work out.”
Another area of debate that has been in the spotlight since Sullivan’s resignation, using technology for online education and for betterment of the classroom experience, was also mentioned in Dragas’ statement. Dragas called for the University to develop an approach to online education and cited distinguished Universities, like MIT, Stanford, and Harvard, who have already undertaken online education as well as Universities who are on the online education track like Carnegie Mellon, Princeton, Yale and other acclaimed institutions.
Sullivan recognized this trend as well in her address to the Board, claiming that the University’s 4VA telepresence consortium was a step in this direction and was an experiment that proved to her that online education is “surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential, and unless carefully managed, can undermine the quality of instruction.” After leaked e-mails showed correspondences between the Rector and Vice Rector discussing this issue, it appears that Dragas and others on the Board expected a larger scale effort to push the University into this growing trend in order to continue to compete as a top school in higher education.
Faculty motivation, salary, and commitment to students was also called to attention in Dragas’ statement. Dragas noted the deteriorating ratio of faculty to students, and attributed these circumstances to “the stresses of increased tuition and insufficient resource prioritization.” She also addressed compensation, using the University’s decline in faculty compensation from 26th to 36th since 2005, as evidence for needed change that could possibly be spurred by using online education for large introductory courses.
Sullivan also previously dealt with this issue in her address, saying that faculty retention is not merely dependent on monetary compensation, but is actually a reflection of the ability of the faculty to engage in research and interaction with the brightest students and other faculty, mentioning the “opportunity costs” for faculty to stay that go well beyond compensation. Sullivan also noted the 2% pay raise for faculty in the past year, the first of its kind in four years, for faculty of merit as designated by deans. Though she claimed it is not enough, Sullivan showed her engagement with retaining faculty of the highest caliber and her concerns for adequate compensation in the future.
Dragas’ statement reflected more concerns than just these, saying her list was only a partial assessment of the University’s needs and that a concrete, strategic plan is needed to address them. Sullivan’s lack of strategic vision, in Dragas’ opinion, was the reason for the forced resignation, something that Dragas believed the Board did for the right reasons but in the “wrong way.” Sullivan’s earlier address to the Board dealt with a lot of these issues. She also believed her strategic vision statement clearly outlined her prescription for change in the University long before the drama commenced.
Despite the difference in approach to these issues, the controversy has been able to define areas of concern for the University community in upcoming years and should lend itself to a future debate of how to deal with these challenges in a way that utilizes the advantages of incrementalist and dynamic change and finding where both techniques are necessary, a balance that should be mastered by whoever emerges as President after Tuesday’s Board meeting.