For the University of Virginia, the future is now, just greatly improved.
University committees, and a consultant hired to provide a strategic vision for UVa, are recommending the university focus on its current strengths and improve them. The advice comes after interviewing more than 10,000 students, faculty, alumni and officials from other universities around the country.
In a report to the UVa Board of Visitors on Tuesday, Art & Science Group recommended that the university rework itself into a collegiate research university. The school would emphasize student academic experience and interaction with faculty, as well as improving the research areas in which the university current excels.
That description, the consultant noted, is pretty much a description of the university as it is.
“The over-arching message we took away was to build on your existing strengths,” Benjamin G. Edwards, a principal with Art & Science, told the board. “Don’t neglect your [strengths], but at the same time, don’t take them for granted.”
Edwards said school leaders need to become public leaders and push for more state funding. They also need to consider joining with other universities to share some programs.
“Every funding resource in higher education is stressed and for public institutions, it is more so,” he said. “It’s also very easy to compromise academic excellence, but it’s very difficult to regain it.”
Edwards warned the board that it faces issues with funding, including decreased state aid and fewer federal grants, as well as intense competition for students and faculty from other schools. It also must address last summer’s power struggle between Rector Helen E. Dragas and UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan that tarnished the school’s reputation.
Sullivan was pressured to resign last June by the board’s Executive Committee, creating a public outcry from faculty, staff and alumni. That outcry led to Sullivan’s reinstatement 16 days later, but the controversy has continued.
Edwards said the controversy could be used to the school’s advantage, however.
“UVa finds itself in a national spotlight,” he told the board. “That gives it a public opportunity to state what it stands for and where it’s headed.”
The consultant’s message echoed a strategic “cornerstone prospectus” presented Tuesday by Sullivan, based on research conducted by a variety of university committees and organizations. The presentation is designed to keep UVa competitive among top public and private universities.
“This is a not a plan. What we are bringing you today is a draft. That’s why I call it a prospectus,” Sullivan told the board. “We have to have some idea going ahead on what our strong points are and our own collective identity.”
Both the study and Sullivan’s plan recommend the university focus on expanding and improving UVa’s unique qualities. The rich history, student self-governance and culture of academic excellence and student life should be emphasized and expanded.
The university should build on and improve those research areas in which it currently excels rather than attempting to expand into a world-class research university.
UVa should expand its respected programs teaching leadership skills and ethics and find ways to draw all residential students into the university’s community life.
“UVa would do well to protect its core advantage vigorously and indeed to invest further in aspects of the residential experience to remain competitive and to ensure that a high percentage of UVa students partake in the full experience,” the Art & Science study’s executive summary states.
The consultant’s report and Sullivan’s cornerstone plan both recommend recruiting “distinguished faculty” and increasing student and faculty interaction, as well as student involvement in research. They both recommend investing in the university programs that research new methods of teaching in lower education, as well as in higher education classrooms, and finding a way to keep intact and expand the university’s reputation for academic excellence.
“UVa should lead in rethinking the content of an undergraduate education today through advising, experiential learning and other forms of engagement that students take to develop useful knowledge for this era,” the consultant report’s executive summary states. “In particular, UVa could claim leadership development — notably, the preparation of … public‐service‐oriented future leaders — as a major institutional focus and reason for continued investment in residential education.”
Sullivan’s prospectus and the consultant’s study both suggest investing in technology that will bolster the undergraduate experience and the university’s research programs. Faculty recruitment is also key.
“We need to think about identifying faculty that we would like to recruit much like a coach identifies the high school players he hopes to recruit,” Sullivan said. “We want our faculty to make a long-term commitment to us and we need to make a long term commitment to them.”
Edwards recommended keeping high standards for undergraduate students. He suggested focusing less on making UVa affordable and more on charging tuition equal to what the market for a prestigious institution will bear. Improving financial aid through the Access UVa program would help keep the student body diverse, he said.
Knowing where the school should go is one thing; knowing how to get there is another.
Sullivan’s prospectus recommended a balance between state support and market-based tuition, including increasing the number of out-of-state students, who pay higher rates.
Edwards agreed and also recommended using the university’s fundraising organizations, which helped the university’s recently completed $3 billion capital campaign succeed.
Board member William “Bill” Goodwin Jr. suggested the board seek assistance from the many foundations that operate different UVa programs and schools.
“What we come up with the foundations are going to have to buy into,” Goodwin said. “It’s fine to come up with a strategic plan, but the people raising the money to help implement this ought to have some input.”
Board member John L. Nau suggested taking the plan to alumni, many of whom were alienated by the Sullivan controversy.
“The more we involve the alumni who may have felt disenfranchised, the more we are going to increase their support and input,” Nau said.
Board members indicated support for the strategies recommended by the consultant and president and that the next step will be finding ways to promote the plan and pay for it.
“We’ve interviewed 10,000 people and invested thousands and thousands of hours and at some point the product has to come back to us,” said board member Dr. Stephen P. Long. “I think the board needs to start wrapping this up.”
“We need to go forward with finding implementation procedures,” said board member Frank B. Atkinson.