Monday, October 20, 2014

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Strategic Planning Forum Participants: U.Va. Has Responsibilities to Public

A roomful of University of Virginia community members offered feedback Wednesday to a group charged with assessing the University’s role as a public institution.

The Public University Working Group is one of seven such groups created as part of the strategic planning process launched earlier this year by President Teresa A. Sullivan. It hosted an open forum in the South Meeting Room at Newcomb Hall to solicit input, the first in a series of public meetings held by the working groups.  

The group, chaired by Dean Carl P. Zeithaml of the McIntire School of Commerce, is tasked with considering issues including what it means to be a public university in the 21st century, to what extent a public mission can be pursued in the face of diminished public funding, and how the University can make a compelling case to state residents and elected officials that investing in U.Va. pays off.

“This is just the start of a broader process of trying to get input on the issues confronting our working group,” Zeithaml said at the beginning of the meeting. “What I want to do today is emphasize idea generation or brainstorming, as opposed to idea evaluation and drawing any conclusions.”

About 100 faculty, staff, students and community members attended the open meeting, seated at tables or standing in the back of the room. For much of the meeting, they held smaller group discussions – facilitated by a member of the working group at each table – about the University’s hypothetical future as a public institution in 2019. What type of place should U.Va. be? What will be the key dimensions of its role as a public university? How does the University get there?

At one of the tables, a group including undergraduates, grad students, faculty and staff discussed their concerns and hopes for how the University should function. English professor Susan Fraiman said U.Va. should be diverse and accessible to people from a variety of backgrounds.

“When I think about the term ‘public,’ I think about broad accessibility across races and across classes,” said Fraiman, who said she also believes the University has a responsibility to be a good community partner and a responsible employer.

A few seats away, fellow English professor Deborah McDowell, who also directs the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, said she has concerns regarding online education and accessibility. Growth in online offerings shouldn’t lead to divisions between students who can afford to reside at U.Va. and those who cannot, she said.

“Online education is for people a salutary development, and I think in many ways it is, but I would not want online education to be the only means of accessing U.Va. for those without the economic means to be physically present on Grounds,” McDowell said.

Another participant in that group, a graduate student in chemistry, said maintaining a robust research program is also part of the institution’s responsibility to the public. Research not only produces results with public value, it also trains future scientists in important fields, she said.

Afterward, representatives from each group gave a summary of their discussions. Many touched on the University’s responsibility to be a caring place and a responsible partner in the local and state communities. One group, which contained physicians from the U.Va. Health System, offered that the University should emphasize training medical students to become family practitioners in area communities. Other participants expressed a desire for reform to the University’s governance structure, or aired concerns about employment practices and fair wages.

At the conclusion, Zeithaml said the many suggestions and thoughts would be incorporated into the working group’s considerations. He also encouraged anyone with further thoughts to share them via the group’s website.

After the meeting concluded, Faculty Senate chair and law professor George Cohen – who, along with Sullivan and several of the University’s deans and administrators, participated in the group discussions – said he thought it was a useful brainstorming session.

“I thought it was a very good sharing of ideas, and in that sense I think it was a success,” he said.

The public forums continue Thursday with the Synergies Working Group’s meeting at 4 p.m. in the South Meeting Room at Newcomb Hall. The forums resume after the holidays with the Faculty Recruitment, Retention and Development Working Group on Jan. 14 at noon in the Newcomb Hall Ballroom. The Streamlining Working Group meets Jan. 15. Additional information on those events is forthcoming in UVA Today.

The working groups are scheduled to develop their first set of ideas and strategies by late January, and present an update to the Board of Visitors at its February meeting. Afterward, they will continue to through the spring, and will provide another update at the board’s May meeting. A working draft of the complete report will follow in late summer.

The strategic planning website includes descriptions of the process, video segments featuring key participants, as well as a way to contribute ideas and feedback via email.

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