Teresa Sullivan Looks Ahead

In a podcast interview, she discusses challenges facing public universities, why U.Va. joined Coursera, and her increased visibility.

August 21, 2012

WASHINGTON -- Few public university presidents enjoy the prominence these days of the University of Virginia's Teresa Sullivan -- whom the institution's board fired this summer and then rehired as professors, alumni, students and others demanded her reinstatement.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed Monday afternoon, Sullivan discussed some of the challenges facing Virginia and other leading public universities. She didn't go into any detail on the events surrounding her ouster and reinstatement, turning a question about being an "incrementalist" (as she described herself during the summer, to the frustration of board members who wanted radical change) into her desire to be seen as "the demographer," one who looks at trends that will reshape public higher education.

She acknowledged that things are different for her now. "I am much more easily recognized -- whether that's good or bad, I'm not totally certain." She said she didn't want to be thought of a spokeswoman for all of public higher education. Of her ideas, she said, "just because I think [something] works in Charlottesville doesn't mean it's going to work elsewhere."

But Sullivan -- who held senior positions at the Universities of Michigan and Texas before coming to U.Va. -- outlined challenges that are in fact present all over the country. Public universities, she said, face "pressure on all revenue sources," from declines in state appropriations, to political "resistance" to tuition increases, to likely "stasis ... if not retrenchment" in federal research support. Sullivan said Virginia must look for ways to economize, but also said that "you do not cut your way to greatness."

While saying that philanthropy will play an increasingly large role, she disavowed the idea of privatization. From Jefferson's time, the University of Virginia "was not public because it was completely supported by the General Assembly." Even if "we don't get a dollar from the General Assembly," U.Va. would be public "because we have a public mission," she said. Public and private "are not a matter of dollars and cents, but a matter of mission."

When Sullivan's future at U.Va. was in doubt, e-mail records among the board members who tried to oust her indicated, among other things, that they were anxious for U.Va. to be bolder online. The trustees had a lot of interest in new models of education -- such as the massive open online courses (MOOCs) that some top universities were starting -- and voiced concern about Virginia not moving quickly enough. In July, U.Va. joined one of the MOOC providers, Coursera.

In her comments Monday, without referencing the board members, Sullivan noted many online initiatives at the university, from course offerings shared with other colleges and universities in the state to the institution's strength in the digital humanities. But her answer to a question about why the university joined Coursera may point to why she has such strong faculty backing. "Coursera is an experiment we are going into because we have faculty members who want to do it."

Further, she said she had been impressed that the first participant universities reported that offering Coursera courses had helped the institutions improve teaching, notably to their traditional on-campus undergraduates. "They are learning a lot about how students learn."

So, Sullivan said, there were many educational reasons to join Coursera, "short of just, 'Does this build you a bigger market?' "


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