Sunday, June 24, 2012


The phrase "The sky is falling!" features prominently in the story, now used
as a common idiom for mistaken belief that disaster is imminent.

Did the University of Virginia Rector

and Board of Visitors

Have a Chicken Little Experience ? 

An analysis of the train wreck at a great nominally public university provides many relevant lessons for stakeholders at the University of Minnesota, members of the state legislature, and citizens of our state. 

 (emphasis mine)

For those seeking insight into the crisis under way at the University of Virginia, I offer the following summary and interpretation of emails that were released last week as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request made by the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, to the university. This summary and interpretation is mine alone, and I wrote this analysis on my own initiative and without the advance knowledge or participation of anyone connected to my employer, the University of Virginia.
» In recent months, UVa Rector Helen Dragas and ex-Vice Rector Mark Kington seem to have persuaded themselves that online technology was about to cause a profound disruption/revolution in higher education. They came to this conclusion — or the conclusion was affirmed in their minds — after they read:
First, an April 8 Chronicle of Higher Education article by Ann Kirschner, dean of the City University of New York, titled “Innovations in Higher Education? Hah! College leaders need to stop talking about transformation before it’s too late,” which speculated that “[t]he ultimate threat to universities could come from the disaggregation of the degree, as students take advantage of the growing availability of open-source learning networks to present evidence of competency to prospective employers.”
Second, a May 13 op-ed by New York Times columnist David Brooks on “The Coming Tsunami” in higher education, which praised the for-profit University of Phoenix, the for-profit online-education company Coursera, and the nonprofit Harvard/MIT online education partnership edX, and speculated that “what happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education.”
Third, a May 30 Wall Street Journal article, “Higher Education’s Online Revolution,” written by two Hoover Institution-affiliated academics who cited the for-profit University of Phoenix as well as the edX partnership to advance a bold, if speculative, claim:
“Over the long term, online technology promises historic improvements in the quality of and access to higher education. The fact is, students do not need to be on campus at Harvard or MIT to experience some of the key benefits of an elite education. Moreover, colleges and universities, whatever their status, do not need to put a professor in every classroom. One Nobel laureate can literally teach a million students, and for a very reasonable tuition price. Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive) — as has happened in every other industry — making schools much more productive.”
The rector told the then-vice rector in an email that this article demonstrated “why we can’t afford to wait” presumably, to force President Teresa A. Sullivan’s resignation.
» Harvard MBA and UVa bachelor of science alumnus Jeff Walker, a major UVa donor, told the rector that the “on-line learning world has now reached the top of the line [sic] universities and they need to have strategies or will be left behind’ and sent the rector a video about a “hugely successful on-line course at Stanford” that promised, according to The Cavalier Daily reporter’s summary, to “lower costs” and “improve productivity.”
The rector responded: “BOV is squarely focused on UVa’s developing such a strategy and keenly aware of the rapidly accelerating pace of change.”
The rector appears not to have:
First, questioned Walker’s assumption that the higher education industry is about to enter an era of survival-of-the-fittest competition.
Second, asked if the future envisioned by Walker might not allow, as it does today, for a diversity of approaches to higher education.
Third, researched the claim that online delivery of higher education lowers costs and improves productivity.
Fourth, asked if online education results in better or worse educational outcomes.
And fifth, raised any questions about possible differences in mission between for-profit and nonprofit private institutions of higher education on the one hand, and public institutions of higher education on the other.
» The rector sent the then-vice rector a June 3 Williams College commencement address by Dr. Atul Gawande that argued that calamitous failure can sometimes only be avoided by assuming a high degree of risk. According to Gawande: “All policies court failure — our war in Iraq, for instance, or the effort to stimulate our struggling economy. But when you refuse to even acknowledge that things aren’t going as expected, failure can become a humanitarian disaster. The sooner you’re able to see clearly that your best hopes and intentions have gone awry, the better. You have more room to pivot and adjust. You have more of a chance to rescue.”
Presumably, the rector interpreted this article as justification for carrying out a bold, if risk-laden, “rescue” operation at UVa, the goal of which apparently was to avoid an unspecified “humanitarian,” or other, “disaster” down the road.
» The then-vice rector emailed the rector on June 10: “[UVa’s] Darden [Business School] is a near and visible template for much of what we seek.” What this statement means is unclear, but it is worth noting that Darden receives no funds from the state, is a professional school and charges what industry insiders consider to be “market-rate” tuition.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it is also the school from which the rector and the ex-vice rector received their two-year postgraduate degrees.
At the Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C., venture capitalist Jeff Neuchterlein (a UVa College of Arts and Sciences and Law School alumnus) appears to have questioned President Sullivan about what UVa was planning as far as online education was concerned. Neuchterlein later told the then-vice rector, in a private email, that he found the president’s response — which is not summarized in the FOIA’d emails — to be “rather pedestrian.”
In her final statement to the Board of Visitors on June 18, President Sullivan had this to say about the online delivery of postsecondary education: “There is room for carefully implemented online learning in selected fields, but online instruction is no panacea. It is surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential, and unless carefully managed, can undermine the quality of instruction.”
» The rector and then-vice rector seem to have conspired to remove the president, exchanging between themselves, on June 2, drafts of a public statement announcing the president’s dismissal and meeting — privately, it seems — to handle loose ends before any “group” meeting took place (meaning, presumably, a meeting of the Board of Visitors).
» The then-vice rector inadvertently acknowledged the lack of transparency surrounding the forced resignation of President Sullivan when he emailed the rector and UVa Chief Operating Officer Michael Strine on June 11: “[M]aybe a modicum of candor is called for” (emphasis added editorially).
» In a June 12 email to the rector, the then-vice rector and Provost John Simon, the COO seems to have consented to publicly making the argument that there was a need for “urgency and action," given the financial/academic environment. Presumably, such an argument would have helped legitimize what the rector and then-vice rector had just done — namely, force the abrupt resignation of President Sullivan.
» The same day, the then-vice rector emailed the rector, the provost and the COO, urging them to publicly make “the case for unavoidable change” — presumably, the “unavoidable change” of a forthcoming disruptive/revolutionary transformation of the higher education industry. This is a speculative argument, but one that the ex-vice rector appears to have believed would justify radical change imposed from above, including the forced resignation of President Sullivan.
Thus did a handful of wealthy and well-connected individuals who have no recognized credentials or expertise in the field of higher education, including two members of the Board of Visitors (namely, the rector, a real-estate developer appointed by Gov. Tim Kaine, and the ex-vice rector, a venture capitalist appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell), privately persuade themselves that a revolution was on the horizon and that this revolution — the arrival, trajectory and outcome of which are, to say the least, uncertain — necessitated destabilization of one of the world’s great public research universities and the public and private humiliation of UVa’s first woman president, the internationally esteemed scholar and public higher education leader, Dr. Teresa A. Sullivan.

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