The first public meeting that brought University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan and Rector Helen E. Dragas together since Dragas' contested reappointment confirmation was forward-looking and genial, as a subset of the Board of Visitors heard the first reports from working groups established to inform the draft of a new guiding document for the university.
Sullivan launched into a 15-minute case for UVa's future, and the weight that its future carries as a leading public university, at the outset of Friday's special committee meeting of the group created to steer strategic planning efforts.
She announced plans to revisit the school's mission statement, last overhauled in 1985, and made her case for why UVa should lead a nation of under-funded, struggling public universities through "a period of tremendous challenges."
"If we don't set an example by meeting the challenges, all public universities are going to struggle," she told committee members and high-ranking administrators gathered around a board room table in the Rotunda. "If we lose our public universities in this country, it will be a profoundly damaging loss."
She encouraged the board to embrace the mission as an outgrowth of UVa's Jeffersonian birthright, and said that its scale and traditions render it an ideal incubator for big ideas.
The conversation was part of a larger effort to infuse the board's waxing strategic planning process with aspiration and intellectual direction, she said. To that end, Sullivan directed university deans to create Valentine's Day cards for her detailing their hopes, dreams and intellectual vision for UVa.
A timeline for the planning process provided Friday places a rough draft in the board's hands this August. Working groups and a synthesis of recommendations from interviews with 20 leading thinkers in higher education from across the country should be ready for board members' consideration in May, Sullivan said.
Those present Friday heard reports from three of seven working group leaders tasked with spearheading recommendations in streamlining, synergy and technology.
Robert Bruner, dean of the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, led the discussion on streamlining university operations -- a prospect that normally sets off anxieties, he said.
"Streamlining means many things to different people," he said. "It should be about more than cutting costs; it should be about the continued pursuit of excellence."
Bruner said that three big ideas have emerged from his working group, all of which revolve around simplifying, communication and maximizing resources.
He said that he's never heard of a "one-time, D Day-style invasion streamlining effort" that works.
Any successful effort to actualize the "high-performance operational culture" that his group envisions would require time and commitment, he said.
Like Sullivan, Bruner advocated a return to principles.
"The inefficiencies don't arise out of a mean-spiritedness or passive-aggressive behavior, but out of confusion about our purpose," he said.
He proposed a bill of rights and responsibilities for students, stakeholders, faculty and staff.
Jeffrey Walker, chairman of the University Group of Foundations, said that his synergy group recommendations include enhancing communication and collaboration between schools, leveraging technology in meaningful ways and fostering a more responsive innovation culture.
Walker said that funding research in a nascent stage would help tear down the barriers that frustrate discovery.
"[We need] more support for quick changes and new ideas, and shut them down if they don't make sense," he said.
Vice President and Chief Information Officer James Hilton laid out several priorities identified by the technology working group, culminating in the assertion that UVa "can be a place that stakes a claim in defining ethics and leadership in a digital century."
In developing its approach, the technology group searched for "forces that we avoid at our own peril going forward," Hilton said.
Those forces include big data, consumerization, globalization, connected learning, the exponential increase in time students are spending in front of screens, technological literacy and what form humanities will take in a digital age, he said.
"We don't know what an e-book is going to look like 50 years from now," Hilton said.
Dragas thanked working group leaders and administrators for their efforts to date and asked staff to continue to provide that level of rich detail for board members as they make decisions moving forward.
She also asked Sullivan how and when she planned to match strategic goals with economic realities.
Sullivan said that implementation of recommendations should make use of best practices, such as piloting projects before widespread implementation and including sundown provisions that cap time limits on initiatives.
The full board will meet Feb. 20 to 22.