What the UVA Firing Was Really About

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

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