Monday, December 22, 2014

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Faculty Senate Weighs University’s Future as Part of Strategic Planning Process

Members of the University of Virginia’s Faculty Senate discussed the University’s strategic direction Monday, weighing in on the issues that will guide U.Va.’s future operations.

The senate meeting was part of the strategic planning process launched this academic year by President Teresa A. Sullivan. Faculty senators examined issues such as technology, resources, faculty recruitment and retention, what it means to be a public university, student life, synergy and streamlining.

At the beginning of the meeting, the senators present also unanimously ratified a statement crafted by the senate’s executive council in response to a weekend article in the Washington Post that alleged continuing tensions between Sullivan and the Board of Visitors. The statement said actions outlined in the article fall short of the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation expected following Sullivan’s reinstatement last summer, and that they “raise the very concerns about minority control that led U.Va’s accrediting agency to put us on warning last fall.”  

The executive council also recognized the Board of Visitors for recently approving Sullivan’s proposal to increase faculty salaries and for taking steps to improve its internal governance processes. “We applaud the Board’s efforts and are eager to continue working with the Board in mutual commitment to the University’s excellence,” the statement said.

The bulk of the meeting consisted of small group discussions about the issues under consideration in the strategic planning process. Each group tackled one issue, and members of the corresponding strategic planning working groups were present to moderate and record the discussions.

“This is a very important step,” Senior Vice Provost J. Milton Adams, who is leading the strategic planning process, said prior to the group discussions. “We need your thoughts and ideas on what looks good, what seems important, what is missing.”

At one table, a group discussed the University’s use of technology as it relates to three areas: “big data”; defining and supporting digital scholarship; and reimagining the Academical Village as a place that leverages 21st-century technology for innovation, creation and discovery.

During the discussion moderated by Vice President and Chief Information Officer James Hilton, who chairs the Technology Working Group, a faculty senator questioned how much of the University’s total scholarly output is facilitated by big data and whether that output merits exponential infrastructure investment.

“Big data is relative,” Hilton said. “Everybody’s world of data is getting bigger. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. The question is, what’s it going to be like five or 10 years from now? If we can’t provide the capacity researchers require, those researchers will have to go somewhere else.”

Another faculty member pointed out that “big data” means very different things in different disciplines, and that while some researchers in astronomy or physics are already dependent on advanced computational capacity, researchers in other fields – especially in the humanities – may become more tech-dependent in coming years as advances makes new research possible and accelerate the speed of traditional research. 

The group also discussed online learning and massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Opinions on MOOCs varied: one faculty member viewed them as little more than a branding exercise, while another said the open classes are a noble experiment that might allow modern universities to share intellectual resources and knowledge with motivated learners who wouldn’t otherwise have access.

Other groups discussed issues such as increasing opportunities for strategic philanthropy, making the University’s business practices more transparent, defining U.Va.’s obligations as a public university, and making the residential experience better for undergraduate students. 

At the end of the meeting, Adams said the strategic planning steering committee is in the process of evaluating and distilling ideas presented thus far in the planning process, and that planners will present a draft of the completed report to the Board of Visitors in August. An approved final plan should follow in the fall, he said.

Documentation on the work done so far, a schedule of meetings, a comments forum and other resources are available on the strategic planning website

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