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The Side Show at UVa

I must admit I’ve considered the events at UVa to be a side show—one of those fascinating, high-profile diversions that come along in higher education from time to time. As one who accepts the growing irrelevance of the Research I universities to the key issues facing the nation (now THAT would be a good topic for a future blog post), I am alternately amused and irritated by the undue attention that the periodic soap operas of presidential firings attracts.

From what I’ve seen over the years, the best job in higher education is “fired Research 1 university president.” Since many presidents negotiate tenured faculty positions as part of their compensation package, the job security is great, plus the pay is pretty sweet too.

But I digress. The real reason I try not to take these things seriously is that it is impossible to know what is really going on. The reasons for Sullivan’s dismissal are known only to the direct participants—and even they may not know exactly what is going on. It’s fun to speculate, but generalizing from these incidents is dangerous.

Then I read Kevin Kiley’s piece in today’s Inside Higher Education, and I think he nailed on the head why this situation may be a bit different. Here’s what he said:

“In some sense, the board’s vote on Tuesday will be a referendum on the speed of the changes the university will undergo over the next few years. That decision, given U.Va.’s prominence among research universities, particularly public flagships, could reverberate through the sector.

In her statement Thursday, and in previous statements about Sullivan’s resignation, Dragas took issue with how the president approached change at the university, saying U.Va. needed “bold and proactive leadership.” “The bottom line is the days of incremental decision-making in higher education are over, or should be,” she said in her statement Thursday. That statement contrasts sharply with one Sullivan made to the board Monday, at the meeting in which the board considered the appointment of the interim president.

At that time, Sullivan accepted the mantle of “incrementalist,” saying that slow change with campus buy-in is “the best, most constructive, most long lasting and beneficial way to change a university.”… Most in higher education, particularly faculty members, would agree with Sullivan about the pacing of change. But an increasing number of boards and outside parties, as well as some members of the academy, say that universities should be acting more quickly to address the changes they see on the horizon.”

Kiley has neatly summarized two opposing views of the best way to approach change in higher education, and I see these two approaches reflected in how people work for constructive change in the sector. In some ways, Lumina is trying to steer a middle course—moving to develop and expand new models of higher education delivery and credentials, for example, while engaging faculty and others in the academy in efforts to improve instruction and student supports.

We will continue that approach, but events at UVa show that the pace of change is accelerating and even venerable institutions like the University of Virginia are feeling the pressure. At some point, incremental approaches will not get us where we need to go. Many in the academy do not accept the need for change. That, too, will need to change.

Tracy Chen

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