Heard: U.VA Board Ousts President Sullivan For Her Resistance To Online Courses

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Here’s more evidence that the trends in online learning are causing major universities to sweat. Bryan McKenzie reports that various boards, officials and foundations at the University of Virginia worried that U.Va was lagging moves by Stanford’s Coursera program in launching online courses. This appears to be a large part of the pressure they applied to get rid of U.Va President Teresa Sullivan earlier this month. This is a remarkable example of innovation trends in education now dramatically affecting university politics. Will other college presidents be ousted for failure to move quickly enough or strategically enough in the coming wave of MOOCs (massive open online courses), blended learning and other education innovation trends? What would Thomas Jefferson do?

McKenzie reports:

Emails released under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act between Rector Helen E. Dragas and Vice Rector Mark J. Kington show the officials and others in the university community discussed the need to develop online classes to reach new students, increase revenues and cut costs. Those were among the issues board officials cited in seeking Sullivan’s resignation. The emails also show that Kington and Dragas were crafting the announcement of Sullivan’s resignation as much as six days before her learning of the board’s desire for her to resign.
Jeffrey C. Walker, a board member of the McIntire School of Commerce Foundation and former president of the foundation, sent Kington an email on June 3 discussing the need to push online.“Check out the video that Berklee College of Music is having its board (of which I am a member) watch with regard to the hugely successful online course at Stanford that is being used by Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Southern New Hampshire University… and many other universities,” Walker wrote to Kington, which was forwarded to Dragas.Walker referred to the online classes as “a signal that the online learning world has now reached the top-of-the-line universities and (U.Va. needs) to have strategies or will be left behind.”

Walker inquired as to how U.Va. officials were looking at online education programs.“How are we thinking about it at U.Va.?” he wrote. “How might it lower our costs, improve productivity and link us to a group of students we couldn’t afford to serve (maybe more kids for the state to please the legislature)… maybe more second career grads?” 

Dragas thanked Walker for the note.“Your timing is impeccable — the BOV is squarely focused on UVa’s developing such a strategy and keenly aware of the rapidly accelerating pace of change,” she wrote.

The board announced Sullivan was leaving U.Va on June 9.

About two hours after Sullivan’s resignation was announced, Jeff Nuechterlein, founder of Isis Capital LLC, a venture capital and hedge fund based in Alexandria and past president and a trustee on the U.Va. College Foundation, said he received “scores of emails” on the announcement. “[Dragas’] statement is helpful for giving people more color on the situation,” he wrote to Kingston, who forwarded the email to Dragas. “One small data point that seems consistent — I was not impressed [with] Terry’s rather pedestrian answer to my question at the Sulgrave Club about online learning and what U.Va. was doing, given what Stanford and others had announced.”

Via The Richmond Times Dispatch


Scott Jaschik from InsideHigherEducation writes:

While the University of Virginia is home to numerous projects using technology for scholarship and teaching, the e-mail trail may not win over many of the faculty members and students who are furious at the board leaders for ousting Sullivan — and doing so despite an outpouring of support for her. The university, compared to other research universities, has taken great pride in preserving closer student-faculty interactions. But the e-mail records suggest both Dragas and Kington are committed to a major push into online education.

Sullivan is not quoted at length in the e-mail files that were released, but one from an alumnus/donor to Kington says that Sullivan provided a “pedestrian” answer to a question about how UVa was embracing the online education revolution. Sullivan is not responding to press inquiries at this time, but sources familiar with discussions she has had on distance education said that she viewed it as an important trend, but 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. Sources also said she viewed distance education as an issue on which faculty input was crucial.

Kington, one of the key players in the e-mail exchanges, is no longer vice rector. He submitted his resignation to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell on Tuesday, according to The Daily Progress. “In order to serve this university which I love and respect, and to help bring about new leadership on the Board of Visitors at this critical time, I am resigning my position as Vice Rector and as a board member effective immediately,” he wrote.

On Monday, the university’s Faculty Senate, after meeting with Helen E. Dragas, the board’s rector, called for both Dragas and Kington to resign. Faculty members, who remain critical of the board and its process to select the university’s interim president, cheered Kington’s resignation. “We’re halfway there on the first step to recovery,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies who has been an outspoken critic of the board’s actions over the past week. “For UVa to have a chance to recover, Kington needs to stay as far away from Charlottesville as possible.”

Dragas has not made any statement about her future, and McDonnell declined to comment Tuesday about whether he would reappoint her to the board when her current term expires July 1.

Inside Higher Ed

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