The storms have passed at the University of Virginia but not the clouds. Resolved is the question about who will lead, but lingering are larger questions about the future of the institution in an era when public higher education is under siege.
State money is dwindling. A wave of faculty is drifting toward retirement with the market for top talent turning more competitive. And the university’s marquee financial aid program is beset by soaring costs.
Still standing after the summer’s leadership drama to confront the challenges are the two women who somehow survived it: President Teresa A. Sullivan, who surrendered her job and then regained it, and Rector Helen E. Dragas, confirmed by the legislature last week to a second term on the Board of Visitors seven months after kindling the crisis by leading the effort to oust Sullivan.
Both have preached the importance of moving on. Now they have the chance to do exactly that.
“Over the last half-year the board and President Sullivan have advanced the university's capacity for more thoughtful fiscal oversight, better strategic planning, more transparent and responsive governance and greater faculty engagement,” Dragas wrote in an email. “I hope that we can keep working constructively and productively and I will do all that I can to foster that kind of collaboration.”
A last vestige of summer clings to the campus. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges will visit later this year to review the crisis and the university’s response to being placed on warning by the agency over governance violations. But the fight over leadership is substantively ended.
Now, university leaders must address concerns such as financial strains and an institution-defining wave of new faculty hires.
Replacing retiring faculty with leading professors is essential to UVa retaining its place as one of the world’s leading public universities, Sullivan said.
“If we don’t accomplish that one, we don’t accomplish any other strategy,” she said.
Pay is a critical part of the equation, Sullivan said. The average annual salary for full professors at UVa is $141,600, according to a survey last year by the American Association of University Professors. That led in Virginia, but was the lowest among the top five public universities listed in the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings.
“When we hire faculty, we’re going to have to hire them at the market rate, or we’re not going to get them,” Sullivan said.
It’s a point Dragas also made. Asked about her top priorities, she cited, among other things, the university’s fiscal position, linking it explicitly to the need for new faculty hires.
As the university shifts to a new, four-year budget outlook, faculty pay is a key consideration, she wrote.
“University leadership seeks to adopt this strategy and, simultaneously, highlight the critical issue of faculty recruitment and retention,” she wrote. “UVa’s salary levels lag behind those of similar institutions. We all aspire to attract and keep the best and brightest teachers and researchers, even in the face of a large number of projected retirements.”
The rub in boosting pay is coping with pressures from all sides, from sources such as Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has pressured schools to limit tuition increases even as state funding decreases, and the marketplace, which offers an array of alternatives, many of them far cheaper than conventional education.
Those factors provided not only the backdrop for the leadership crisis but for a debate that’s raging on public campuses across the country, over how to maintain academic quality while keeping the bills paid.
“All of us are incredibly committed to ensuring UVa remains an exceptional educational institution, the stand-out that it is and should be,” Dragas wrote. “With some innovative thinking and dogged determination, we will unravel these complexities — at least for now.”
That likely will require facing one of the university’s biggest financial challenges, AccessUVa, the financial aid program providing grant money to students whose families make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Costs have skyrocketed, recently topping $90 million, since the program was phased in during the 2008-09 school year.
“My guess would be that the board’s going to want to put a collar on it,” Sullivan said.
She hopes the university will continue to aid Virginians, she said. As for out-of-state students: “That’s going to be the area that we look at, ‘What can we continue to do?’” Sullivan said.
Because of discounts for state residents, attracting more out-of-state students frequently is a key potential source of additional revenue for schools at all levels.
Sullivan said officials want a pilot project to look at bringing work-study money into the equation.
She expects to present a strategic plan covering those and other issues to the board over the summer.
That will be among the next critical steps to advancing the university beyond the drama of June.
Neil Branch, vice president for organizations of the UVa Student Council, said he’ll be focusing on improving UVa’s image, and he and others plan to reach out to Dragas to invite her to speak to students.
Student Council President Johnny Vroom said more attention needs to be paid to the university’s ties to Richmond, where lawmakers in recent weeks debated whether Dragas should remain on the board.
“[Students] deserve to know how the politics work,” he said.
Vroom said he’s focused in the near term on trying to raise student activity fees to bolster UVa’s out-of-class offerings. He’s also paying attention to several university governance reform bills in the legislature.
Those bills are also a focus of activist Joan Fenton, who, along with her husband, organized an effort to live-stream board meetings.
The proposed legislation is “a first step toward making changes that are necessary to ensure the integrity and excellence of the Board of Visitors,” she said.
Richard Marks of UVa Alumni for Responsible Corporate Governance said he expects his organization to evolve, but to remain focused on governance at the board level.
To Sullivan, the crisis demonstrated part of what she calls UVa exceptionalism. Maintaining the university’s place as a great public institution is the focal point of her job, she said. It’s a mission that extends not just to administrators and faculty, she said, but to students, and it applies not only to education but to character.
“We expect them to be good human beings, too,” she said.