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Re-Capping The Drama At U-Va… Sullivan Is Back, Jefferson’s School Joins Coursera

By on July 30, 2012
Domestic, MOOCs, Public, Required, Universities & Colleges

 Thomas Jefferson statue in front of The Rotunda
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Adam Fagen via Compfight

The bizarre firing and re-hiring of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan this summer had the academic world buzzing for weeks. It’s implications for online learning are still unfolding. One thing is clear: University politics are clearly looking at MOOC courses, online programs and blended learning tools as political footballs in the typically present campus posturing between faculty, administration, staff, board members and other factions. We thought we should update readers on what happened in this story since we last posted about it. Given the details of the case, many academics we’ve spoken to seem surprised that U-Va. Rector Helen Dragas was able to keep her position after her failed ouster of President Sullivan. Time will tell if both women are able to work together. For now, here’s a look back at what has happened.

Daniel de Vise at The Washington Post reports the school used bad timing in joining the Coursera program…

On June 8, the leaders of the university’s Board of Visitors asked for the resignation of President Teresa Sullivan. Among their chief complaints: U-Va. was ignoring perhaps the most significant development in the brief history of online collegiate learning, the vast experiment in global online learning launched by Stanford, MIT and Harvard.

Earlier that day, a group of academic deans at U-Va. had discussed the prospect of entering one of those experiments, Coursera, at a retreat. During the retreat, the university’s arts-and-sciences dean, Meredith Jung-En Woo, asked Philip Zelikow, an associate dean, “to reach out to Coursera and another group to learn more,” according to an e-mail Woo sent to an alumni group last week.

The previous day, June 7, a group from the university’s Darden graduate business school had visited the Coursera offices in Silicon Valley. Dean Robert Bruner was skeptical of the mass online experiment but saw U-Va.’s involvement in Coursera as “a relatively little bet” that could help the university join the “leading edge” in a race into online course delivery, Bruner wrote last week in a blog post.

Now, some in the U-Va. community are understandably perplexed about how, amid all the Coursera conversation, neither the president nor the rector knew that the institution was poised to join the global online movement.

Via The Washington Post

Daniel de Vise reported on U.Va’s move to join the Coursera project earlier in July:

On Tuesday, the investment will yield a major payoff. The university is joining a prestigious online consortium led by two Stanford University professors. With one stroke, the Virginia public flagship heads toward the front of a potentially transformative movement to online learning on a global scale.

The university’s participation in Coursera, an initiative to offer free online courses to the masses, answers a criticism that loomed large in the recent power struggle in Charlottesville that began with the abrupt resignation of President Teresa Sullivan and ended with her reinstatement.

U-Va. Rector Helen Dragas, who leads the governing Board of Visitors, thought university leaders had ignored the Internet at their peril, like the music industry and media companies before them. In the months preceding her attempt to oust Sullivan, Dragas had read various articles about a coming online “tsunami” that would upend higher education, e-mailing one to a board colleague under the heading “why we can’t afford to wait.”

Via The Washington Post 

Aaron Richardson at The Daily Progress reports that U.Va. was not exactly a laggard when it comes to distributed learning and online classes:

UVa engineering professor Larry G. Richards said the university has been teaching distance and online courses since 1983, offering courses first through the engineering school and later through the Curry School of Education.

“First of all, we have been doing distance learning for a long time. We have only been doing online learning for the last five years,” Richards said. “We have special classrooms that allow us to teach classes all around the world … From our view, we are on the cutting edge.”

The classes offered through both schools generate tuition and can be taken for degree credit. MOOCs, by definition, do not. The classes are offered for free, do not award credit, and there is no incentive or obligation to complete them.

…. By contrast, classes offered in the engineering and education schools must be completed as normal classes, cost the same in tuition and award the same credit. The difference, Richards said, is students’ ability to hear lectures and do problems at their own pace. Richards said his online courses are broken into 60 to 90 20-minute lecture sections per semester, punctuated by problems. The lectures are recorded so students can absorb them at their own pace.

“This works out very well for students who are English as a second language,” Richards said. “Someone who is not a native speaker may have trouble keeping up with me, but if they have a recording of me they can make it as slow or as fast as they want.”

Via The Daily Progress

Cathy Grimes writes at EdMedia Commons:

Sullivan was very visible on the campus. She continued her scholarship and taught classes, holding office hours. She was approachable. She posted videos, too. She also pushed back against requests that Virginia make deep cuts in what were perceived as “unprofitable” programs. She was seen as a successful leader and someone who could foster and build relationshps among departments and people who previously did not connect. She was addressing problems at the flagship and had sent a strategy memo to the board noting her concerns.

Sullivan had not done anything criminal or unethical, had not posted compromising photos on Facebook, had not placed the university in a bad position, had not cost the university money or reputation.

But the outrage stemmed from something beyond Sullivan’s reputation and visibility.

Students were angry about the secret nature of the process, which flew in the face of the trust and honor for which Univeristy of Virginia students and alumni (who call themselves “hoos”) take great pride. U.Va. prides itself on fostering an atmosphere of dialogue and open debate, modeled on its founder. They also believe strongly in a sense of community, and Sullivan had worked hard to become part of that community.

The Board offered very little as justification for the secretly engineered ouster. Sullivan diplomatically referred to differing philosophies. When the rector, Helen Dragas, finally offered a list of reasons, they were issues almost all public colleges and universities face. None could be solved overnight, or even in two years. That, and the lack of transparency and any discussion, fueled students’ and faculty members’ anger.

Sullivan would be the first to admit she does not know many of the U.Va. students. It’s a huge university with several colleges and a medical school. But she has embraced the institution and its philosophy. Students, faculty and alumni saw trust, honor and community under attack, and they pushed back. They also saw business interests attacking education, and that also angered them.

Via EdMediaCommons

A team from The Washington Post reported an in-depth look at the whole saga in their piece: “U-Va. upheavel: 18 day of leadership crisis.” The whole piece is worth a read… we present a key section here:

The 18 days of high-octane drama that enveloped the Charlottesville campus is a story of a raw power play gone awry. There were missteps and miscalculations, not just by Dragas and her allies, but also by Sullivan, who did not anticipate the backlash her ouster would ignite.

This narrative is based on scores of interviews with U-Va. officials, professors, alumni and students, as well as state officials. Most participants spoke for themselves. Sullivan and Dragas, who as rector chairs the governing board, declined to be interviewed but spoke through intermediaries.

At first glance, the showdown was between two pioneers — Sullivan, 62, U-Va.’s first female president, and Dragas, 50, the first female rector — with vastly different styles and approaches to education. If Sullivan, a sociologist, was the embodiment of the deliberative scholar, then Dragas, a real estate developer from Virginia Beach, personified the hard-charging business executive.

But the women came to represent something larger than themselves. They embodied two sides of a debate over the future of public higher education.

In Sullivan, the Dragas camp — which included some powerful alumni and board members — saw a roadblock to the creation of the modern university. They believed that U-Va. needed to accelerate technological innovations and pay more attention to the fiscal bottom line.

In Dragas, the Sullivan forces — deans, professors, and many alumni and students — saw nothing less than an assault on the public university’s role in society. If the board could so easily vanquish Sullivan, they asked, what would stop it from going after, say, the German department?

Via The Washington Post

The Associated Press reports that U-VA. is creating an oral history course about the Sullivan ouster and reinstatement.

Students will seek interviews with members of the U.Va. community who were involved in the events, including administrators and current and former members of the Board of Visitors. Students also will examine contemporary higher education policy issues.

John Alexander and Walter Heinecke will teach the course, called “Documenting U.Va.’s Future.” “It’s a teachable moment, as people keep saying, and I think it’s a teachable moment about higher education policy issues, about the relationship between democracy and education, and about students’ role in their own civic life,” Heinecke, an associate professor in the Curry School of Education, said in a statement.

The students plan to frame the project in the context of U.Va. founder Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on public education’s role, as well as the challenges and issues that higher education institutions currently face.

A team from the University Library is cataloging physical and digital items related to Sullivan’s ouster and reinstatement, including signs used at the protests and other events, and posts on online news sites and Twitter. As of this week, U.Va. digital archivist Gretchen Gueguen collected about 80,000 tweets and catalogued more than 260 online news articles, about 120 blog posts and 56 videos, the university said. The library plans to set up an exhibit of the events for students returning in the fall.





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