Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Doing the Right Thing at University of Virginia

I have been following the recent tumult over the secretive ouster of University of Virginia's first female president,  Teresa Sullivan.  We don't know exactly why the Board acted as it did--since they won't tell us.  But based on what we do know so far, it seems like a bad move, and as an educator, I'm delighted to see the UVA community rising up in protest.

I'm sure that the main plotters behind this academic coup d'etat, Board leaders Rector Helen E. Dargas and Vice Rector Mark Kington, sincerely believed that they doing the best thing for Virginia's prestigious public university, which was founded in the early 19th century by Thomas Jefferson.  However, from what I've seen from the limited information available, I think they were mistaken.

Here are my concerns in regards to their actions:

1.  Lack of knowledge of and respect for the academic procedure and community
Dargas and Kington are politically-appointed business people, with limited experience in education (as far as I have seen).  The way they went about this decision is completely out of line with the general academic commitment to dialogue and deliberation.  Quietly turning individual board members against the popular president through secret, one-on-one meetings that subvert the open meeting laws that govern public institutions like UVA is, at the very least, skirting the spirit of the legislation.  But it is a direct affront to the academic values of openness and discussion and developing consensus that are still strong in higher education.  Frankly, for them to think they would get away with this without raising a major stink among the UVA community just shows how little they understand about the core values of what, in the end, is what makes UVA a school that was ranked as the #2 public university by the 2012 US News & World Report -- namely, the people, particularly the faculty and academic leadership.

2.  Lack of understanding of the double-edged sword that is online learning
The rumor is that Dargas and Kington wanted to replace Sullivan because she was not willing to make deeper cuts into the existing academics and to leap more rapidly into the world of online learning.  Certainly, the emails that the UVA student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, received in response to their Freedom of Information Act request that does still legally cover public universities, show Dargas and Kington emailing each other pieces hyping the move towards online learning in higher education.  They cited the examples of Stanford and Harvard as the direction in which they felt Sullivan should be embracing more eagerly.

However, there is no indication that there is any deep understanding among these people about how or what or even why UVA would be doing in the online education field.  There seems to be an assumption that online learning would reduce costs while maintaining the university's reputation.  But, uh, how?  The classes profiled in the articles they eagerly shared with each other are available to anyone for free.  They are not bringing in any new revenue for their respective institutions.  They are also not eliminating any of the costs of the on-campus classes.  These online offerings are not related to the finances of Stanford or Harvard.  Rather, they are simply methods of sharing information and expertise to a larger audience.  While helpful, do they come anywhere close to replicating the experience of a Stanford or Harvard education?  I think not.  (For more information, see the excellent article by Stanford professor Larry Cuban, "Three Ways of Integrating Technology in Schools," which talks about how we tend to confuse mere access to information with education itself.)

It is not easy to do online education well, nor is it always a money maker.  It takes discussion and consideration about how it can be used appropriately and effectively, which is not always obvious for a large and selective university like UVA.   Again, the Board is showing its ignorance if it wants to jump into this field willy-nilly without a well-thought-out plan.  (For more information on this issue, see George Washington University professor David Karpf's article "UVA Board's Lazy Business Sense" on the Huffington Post.)

3.  Lack of commitment to low-income and minority students
So this has not been discussed in the papers, and I may be making it up.  However, another item that these two board members emailed each other about was about another university cutting back on expensive financial aid packages.  This concerns me because in 2004, UVA became the first public university to guarantee full financial aid to low-income applicants.  It has a strong commitment to enabling low- and moderate-income students the opportunity to attend without acquiring massive amounts of debt.  It has also had the highest black graduation rate among the so-called Public Ivies.

Perhaps scaling back on these aid packages is not part of the Dargas and Kington agenda; but, then again, since they have only given vague reasons for the differences in opinion that required Sullivan's resignation, perhaps they are.  It would be a shame for UVA to give up the great strides it has made in this area.  Also, statistics generally show that low-income and minority students tend not to do as well in online education as do wealthier students--one of those pesky details about online education that needs to be examined if it is to be done right.

So we will see how things shake out.  But let me end with something I wish Dargas and Kington had seen before they headed down this contentious path.  It is another commencement speech by Salman Khan, this time at his own alma mater, MIT.  While continuing the positivity prescription of his Rice graduation speech, at MIT Khan talks about MIT's free online classes, and how proud it made him as a graduate that his university was sharing its knowledge for free because it was the right thing to do, and how it influenced his own decision when it came to Khan Academy. 

Because, after all, isn't that really what we want our universities to do?  To encourage its graduates to do the right thing, not just the cheapest or most expedient or most profitable thing?  And how will a school teach its students those things if it doesn't do it itself?


  1. I enjoyed reading your comments and agree with you wholeheartedly on your observations.