Penn weighs in on UVA drama and trends in higher education

Public universities have faced administrative battles, budget cuts

· July 11, 2012, 9:19 pm   ·  Updated July 11, 2012, 9:20 pm

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Recent controversy at the University of Virginia has brought university governance — at both public universities and private ones like Penn ­— into the national spotlight.

Last month, the firing and reinstatement of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan made headlines by revealing the clash between UVA’s Board of Visitors and its alumni, faculty and students.

The incident highlights the pressures of funding cuts and administrative shifts at public universities amid growing concern over the future of higher education — raising the question of whether Penn will be affected by the trends as well.

Two tumultuous weeks

On June 10, the 16 members of the UVA Board of Visitors announced that Sullivan — who had served only two years of her five-year contract — would be resigning from her post.

Federal funding cuts and UVA’s lack of progress in expanding online learning were among the reasons Sullivan was forced to resign, according to a statement on June 21 by Board of Visitors Rector Helen Dragas.

In an effort to move toward online education, Penn recently joined the University of Michigan and Princeton and Stanford universities in offering online courses through Coursera.

Following Sullivan’s announcement of her resignation, faculty protested the board’s decision. When the Board of Visitors appointed an interim president “in secret, without involving the faculty, it screamed to me that these people are tone-deaf about the way the university works,” said William Wulf, a UVA computer science professor. The move prompted Wulf and other prominent faculty to resign in protest.

Students and alumni also stood behind the president, organizing rallies on UVA’s campus and calling for more information about the board’s decision.

“A lot of students had a big issue with how the board behaved in terms of the lack of transparency,” UVA Student Council President John Vroom said.

Facing criticism from the media and UVA community, the Board of Visitors unanimously voted to reinstate Sullivan to the presidency on June 26 and issued an apology.

However, many students remain upset about the incident. “I want to be sure the conversation doesn’t end here, that things don’t get swept under the rug,” Vroom said.

The student voice

One of the criticisms faced by the UVA Board of Visitors was the lack of student and faculty involvement in the decision to fire Sullivan.

“The Board of Visitors didn’t consult with anybody, didn’t inform the entire body of the decision to push Sullivan out, much less consult with students or faculty members,” said Matt Cameron, editor-in-chief of The Cavalier Daily, UVA’s student newspaper.

At UVA, the student representative to the Board of Visitors is chosen by the board itself and is not elected by the student body, Cameron said. He added that in order to integrate students and faculty into the decision-making process, “giving them guaranteed seats on the board elected by the constituents themselves might be a good approach to take.”

By contrast, Undergraduate Assembly Speaker Will Smith believes Penn is “unrivaled when it comes to including student voices in University governance.”

Smith, a rising College junior, cited the inclusion of undergraduates on the University Council and university-wide committees, including the Board of Trustees, as a key link to administrators, faculty and other decision makers.

“From a student government perspective, the administration at all levels is always very receptive to our ideas when we speak on behalf of the student body,” Smith said. “They’re always willing to regularly meet with us and other student groups to continue improving Penn.”

A clash of cultures

While only 5.6 percent of UVA’s funds come from the state, according to the University’s 2011-2012 financial report, most public universities largely depend on federal funding. At these schools, trustee boards, whose members are generally not alumni or involved in higher education, are appointed by the governor for four-year terms.

As a result, trustees are often “under extreme budget-cutting financial duress or … political pressure from the governors who appointed them,” according to Penn spokesperson Steve MacCarthy.

Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, explained this creates a “clash of cultures” with students and faculty at public colleges, since “the culture of the board is the culture of the outside business community, where decisions are made very quickly.”

While Vedder — an Ohio University professor who specializes in higher education policy — feels most trustees are too uninvolved in university governance, he believes the UVA board made extreme changes because of impatience with University procedures.

“Sometimes universities need to be nudged to change because university communities are inherently very conservative in their willingness to alter the way they do things,” Vedder said.

At Penn, the 57-member Board of Trustees meets biannually to discuss and advise Penn President Amy Gutmann on key issues facing the university.

While the Board is “on top of [Penn’s] finances to be sure it’s financially healthy, moving itself in the right direction, growing and getting better,” the trustees are not involved in the day-to-day operations of the University and do not take on a “micromanaging” role, MacCarthy said.

While other universities face budget shortfalls and compete with other schools in the realm of online education and other areas of innovation, MacCarthy believes Penn “is in a unique spot because it has managed its way through difficult financial times without being hurt.”

However, Vedder warned that both public and private universities are in for major changes in the years to come.

“There has to be some sort of external accountability that universities have to the broader community,” he said.

Without it, administrations will “erode confidence in the institution and would lead to changes in the laws of universities getting special privileges,” such as low-interest student loans and tax-deductible donations, he added. “UVA is just the tip of the iceberg.”

This article has been updated from its original version.

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