Trustees | Trusteeship

What Would Jefferson Do? Time to innovate or die

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH   |  June 21, 2012 by Anne D. Neal

The University of Virginia is facing many challenges, but I don’t mean the termination of the president.

Tuition at UVa’s flagship campus rose an alarming 38 percent in just six years—way above inflation. Between 2002 and 2008, Charlottesville’s administrative spending went up 69 percent, compared to instructional spending, which went up only 42 percent. And it’s worse at UVa’s Wise campus: Administrative spending skyrocketed 77 percent, while instructional spending rose 43 percent. Meanwhile, just slightly more than a third of students in the 2004 starting class at the Wise campus graduated in four years. What matters, student success or administrative offices?

It’s not just Virginia’s problem. Student debt exceeds credit card debt. Tuitions increase far faster than even health care costs. More than a third of students learn virtually nothing in four years of college and are graduating with vast gaps in their knowledge. Graduates often don’t have the skills employers demand.

Something’s got to change. That’s why pundits need to back off from their impulse to criticize the recent decision by UVa’s Board of Visitors to oust President Teresa Sullivan. The higher education bubble is bursting, and proactive trustees are stepping up to ensure their institution is delivering a high-quality education at an affordable price.

Thomas Jefferson surely understood disruptive innovation, and now—it appears—trustees at his great alma mater do, too. In a statement released to the public, Rector Helen Dragas said that the board simply could not accept “a model of incremental, marginal change” from the president in a time of challenging economic demands.

It used to be so simple—demand more state money, raise tuition. But the economic downturn has changed all that, and trustees in Virginia and around the country now find themselves with a system of growing costs and declining quality. The old model is simply unsustainable, leaving tough choices.

It is time to innovate or die. That’s the message of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen who, in a letter to more than 10,000 trustees this month, is urgently calling on trustees to put students first—not fancy buildings, administrative offices, sports teams or faculty research agendas.

Transparency is the hallmark of any good board, and UVa’s board needs to address the faculty and the public quickly. But it bears remembering that those in Charlottesville who are now enraged are the same folks who have, for decades, resisted cutting costs and providing accountability to the public they serve. While surveys show that the public believes universities can do more and better with less, faculty and administrators simply don’t agree—reflexively asserting that quality requires more money. For them, enough is never enough.

Indeed, in a survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, in conjunction with the Pew Research Center, almost four out of five college presidents said they were convinced that higher education “is doing a good or an excellent job of providing value for the money spent by students and their families.”

It just may be that Sullivan was a president content with the status quo—intent on demanding more money from students and taxpayers instead of drawing the tough, often unpopular, line between the necessary and the superfluous. And it just may be that the UVa trustees realized students and taxpayers aren’t getting value for their dollars.

Perhaps the trustees took to heart the fact that students can graduate from Virginia’s flagship university without ever taking a single collegiate course in American history, mathematics or economics. Or perhaps they just got tired of the misplaced priorities that UVa’s spending patterns represent.

If institutions want to remain viable, trustees are going to have to demand leaders who innovate and think differently. If the president is not moving in a direction that encourages fiscal efficiency and accountability, then the difficult decision to change leadership will have to be made.

Economic challenges force trustees nationwide to rethink how their institutions educate. And, to put things in context, there are many states like California, faced with far greater challenges than Virginia.

In light of this national problem, let us hope that the UVa trustees have started a trend—a trend of engaged and courageous trustees who understand that the economic reality demands a new paradigm of productive and innovative leadership. Virginia could be leading the way.


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