ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

UVA Watch

October 17, 2012 by Armand B. Alacbay

The cover story of the fall issue of the University of Virginia Magazine is titled "17 Days in June," a reference to the controversial circumstances surrounding the resignation and reinstatement of U-Va. president Teresa Sullivan last summer. And as the sounds of mass protests have largely subsided, the longer, more difficult work lies ahead for the university—how to address the parties' previously-thought irreconcilable philosophical differences.

Lost in the discussion last June was an open conversation about the main concern the board raised in its initial statement about the long-term direction of U-Va.: namely, that the university's "incremental" strategic approach left it ill-equipped to address the challenges of a difficult fiscal landscape combined with increasing demand for access to higher education.

One specific example cited by the board was the university's failure to address the "changing role of technology in adding value to the reach and quality of the educational experience of our students," a challenge in higher education acknowledged by bestselling author and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. "In fact, in the long run the disruptive innovations that produce lower cost can enhance the quality of a college degree, just as they have in other industries," writes Christensen.

At U-Va., the issue was not that the school had not embraced particular models fast enough—but that it had no institutional strategic plan at all to guide when, where, and how to adjust when change becomes inevitable.

Indeed, U-Va. is taking initial steps to incorporate emerging technologies. In a move announced in August, the university announced a new partnership with online course platform provider Coursera. Under the program, U-Va. will offer four online courses open to the public. Is this yet "incremental" change? The University of California's online pilot program has 20 degree-credit courses running during its first year, while the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education's 14 schools have participated for years in an online consortium for smaller-enrollment majors.

Hopefully the Coursera experiment is a first step of a comprehensive plan to adopt innovative technology to meet the needs of expanding student access while leveraging scarce resources effectively and enhancing educational value. At the outset, this does not appear to be the case--the university's vice provost of academic programs indicated that the decision to work with Coursera was "completely unrelated to the board's questions and actions with President Sullivan."

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