“God forbid should we ever be 20 years without such a rebellion… It is lethargy that is the forerunner of death to the public liberty.”
— Thomas Jefferson (1787)
The recent resignation of President Terry Sullivan from the University of Virginia has created a great deal of uncertainty in the Virginia community. Change is never easy and often quite messy. But here is one thing on which you can rely. The spirit of Thomas Jefferson, the first rector of the University of Virginia, is cheering this bold action by the Board of Visitors. Jefferson was a change agent, a man of action and a perfectionist. To paraphrase him, it is time for a revolution.
President Sullivan’s departure is a clarion call from the Board of Visitors that business as usual is not acceptable anymore. Why be good when there is outstanding to be had? Last weekend’s announcement was about a lot more than just President Sullivan, a good woman who was a good steward during her tenure. It was a message to each and every stakeholder in the university community, whether student, faculty member or alumnus, that change must come.
Individually, each of us has a larger role to play than we used to if Virginia is to continue to occupy its historical place as one of the elite universities in the United States.
Here are a few alarming facts about the university:
» UVa’s U.S. News and World Report ranking has fallen steadily since 1988 — from No. 15 to No. 25, with a ding from No. 24 taking place as early as last year.
» A full professor at UVa would need a 32 percent raise to earn as much as his/her counterpart at one of the top 10 best paying universities in the nation. Lest this discrepancy be attributed to the fact that UVa competes for faculty with richly endowed private schools and can’t expect to measure up, note that UVa’s average full professor pay of $141,600 doesn’t even place it in the top 10 among four-year public universities nationally.
» UVa’s most recent reported admissions yield is just 43 percent, which means the rate at which students accept a place at UVa after receiving an acceptance letter from Peabody Hall is well under half ... and falling. Harvard’s yield rate is more than 80 percent, Yale’s is 66 percent and Stanford’s is 73 percent. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reports a 56 percent yield rate, 13 points higher than that of UVa.
This final statistic is perhaps most distressing. When I was applying to colleges in 1972, I was debating among Harvard, Virginia and West Point. All three were destination schools, as opposed to safety schools. Each had its own unique set of advantages. I chose to apply early to Virginia because it had the cross-section of attributes that most appealed to me. (It also helped that my father told me I could go to college anywhere in the country as long as it was in Albemarle County!)
Today, conversations around UVa seem confined to “top state schools” or “top public universities” rather than best outright, far less than what most of us aspire to when thinking about our beloved institution. We can do better.
The world is changing rapidly, and UVa needs proactive leadership to match the pace of change. Certainly, our next president should lead a strategic planning process involving all stakeholders with a vision for the world of academia of 2022 and 2032, and chart an innovative path to get us there. Helen Dragas, rector of the Board of Visitors, has already referenced this in her statement of June 10, and each of us needs to be willing to commit time and resources to ensure that we are thinking ahead 10 and 20 years to ensure that the university is in that pantheon of extraordinary schools that Jefferson envisioned.
When I feel I am not performing up to my capabilities at work, I review a list of quotes for inspiration. One of my favorites is by John Keats, who said, “I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.” The Board of Visitors has just told each and every one us that it is aspiring to greatness. It is about time, and we should all be elated.