Sullivan, Board of Visitors Discuss Her Agenda for the University

July 13, 2010 — Teresa A. Sullivan, the University of Virginia's incoming president, was a special guest at the Board of Visitors' annual two-day retreat last weekend.  

Rector John O. Wynne opened the meeting by welcoming Sullivan, who takes office Aug. 1, and turned the first session of the meeting over to her to talk about the presidential transition.

Sullivan, who had the previous week relinquished her responsibilities as provost at the University of Michigan, opened with a report of her University-related activities since the board elected her president in January. Her immersion into the University community included six weekends on Grounds, during which she met with President John T. Casteen III, held meetings with University leaders, attended dinner with student leaders, engaged members of the Faculty Senate, and talked to local education leaders.

She said she spent a great deal of time with Arthur Garson Jr., executive vice president and provost, and Leonard W. Sandridge, executive vice president and chief operating officer.

"I've met with most vice presidents and deans twice, and toured the hospital, the art museum and academic facilities," she said. "I went to a men's basketball game and got to try out all of the University's recreational facilities."

She told about how, on one snowy evening in late winter, she found a welcome message from the Purple Shadows, one of the University's secret societies, at the front door of her Michigan home.

Sullivan then outlined some of the key issues that she plans to address in the first year of her presidency. They include:

•    transition of senior University leadership;
•    implementation of planning recommendations;
•    financial resources/cost controls;
•    faculty retention;
•    internal budget process;
•    overall productivity.  

She said that the transition of senior leadership – both Sandridge's retirement and Garson's departure in the spring – was very important to her. She said she planned to take time to analyze the reporting lines of senior administrators' portfolios with an eye to organizational structure. "I may be looking at changing some of those portfolios in light of changes in leadership."

Sullivan said she has no plans to take on any new planning initiatives; rather, she sees her task as consulting with senior leadership and to oversee implementation of the recommendations made by the Commission on the Future of the University, U.Va.'s recently completed planning initiative. She has often praised Casteen's extraordinary leadership and planning acumen, noting that no university has done a better job of visionary planning.  

The greatest challenge, she acknowledged, will be financial resources, a recurring theme at the board retreat.

"How do we invest in priorities without the money to do it?" she asked. "To sustain what we have, we need to have a recurring source of income."

She also voiced her concerns that as other universities begin to recover from the recession, the University will be in danger of losing faculty because of an erosion to salaries during the economic downturn.

As to the internal budget function, she said that she has heard from all of the deans that they would like to understand it better. "One of my objectives," she said, "would be to create a new budget model that includes more transparency."

"Finally," Sullivan said, "I'd like us to begin to think systematically about productivity. As a university, we are already at the top of the charts in this area. By all the measures, U.Va. is a trendsetter."  She pointed to U.Va.'s high graduation rate and the fact that the University is seen as a model for other universities.   

She said she'd like to think of additional measures that would help the University get "more bang for its education buck."   

She used "gateway courses" – that either lead, or inhibit, a student in a particular area of study, as one area to explore and analyze. "There are ways to improve gateway courses that benefit both the faculty and the student," she said.

Issues Discussion Focuses on Admissions

During the retreat, the board looked at a number of issues facing the University, with Wynne asking members to set aside their decision-making hats in order to engage in lively discussion – and debate.

Topics – on which the University is measured against its peers – ranged from:

•    national and international rankings;
•    staff and faculty salaries;
•    research awards and undergraduate research;
•    undergraduate graduation rates;
•    fundraising and private support;
•    endowment performance;
•    long-term financial strength/state funding;
•    bond ratings.

One topic that caused a great deal of discussion was a proposal by Greg Roberts, dean of admission, to consider moving to an "early action" option for first-year applicants.

Roberts laid out the pros and cons of moving to early action – its impact on recruitment activities, on financial aid processing, and on his office – and explained the reasons he favors such a move.

Early action is, Roberts said, "the most flexible and student-friendly" of the three types of early-action plans that are being used at colleges and universities across the country. It is non-binding and allows students to make early applications to the University as well as to any other schools of their choice. The biggest benefit is that it allows students to apply early and receive decisions by mid-December, giving them early assurance of admission to their top schools.

In September 2006, the University announced that it was ending its binding "early decision" program in which students were allowed to apply early, on the condition that they would accept the University's offer of admission. The action was taken in an effort to remove a barrier to qualified low-income students and their families, who were uncomfortable committing to attend one university without comparing financial aid offers from several.

Roberts said he and his staff have done a great deal of research on the issue since that change was made and would not be making this new proposal if it would hurt low-income students' applications.  

He said that early action data suggests the opposite, and that early action gives students more time to figure out their financial aid needs and universities more time to assist students with their financial aid applications.  

"It will allow us to better identify low-income students earlier and to find the students who need our help," said Yvonne Hubbard, director of student financial services, who was on hand to answer questions about the impact of such a change on low-income students. "We will be able to work closely with students and give them an advance estimate of their financial aid packages."

In addition, the admissions office will have more time in which to recruit those students and convince them that the University is the place for them.   

In fact, it will give the office more time to focus on communicating with all students accepted early, and to talk about the benefits of U.Va.  

Roberts expects that if the University decides to adopt early action, the majority of Virginia students will apply early. Such a move, however, would not go into effect until fall 2011 for the incoming class of 2012.  He and his staff would like to begin to communicate the change to sophomore and junior high school students this fall so that they can be fully prepared when it comes time for them to apply. 

A New Financial Model

Declining state support was a recurring theme of the retreat. The General Assembly has cut the University's general fund appropriation by $36.8 million since the 2007-08 fiscal year, and another  $14.7 million reduction is expected during the current fiscal year.

The board examined the University's major revenue sources – tuition and private funds – and discussed in depth the challenges the University is facing, particularly regarding size and cost.

The discussion was based largely on a white paper written by board member Austin Ligon, who chairs the Special Committee on Planning.  

Wynne discussed Gov. Bob McDonnell's commission on the future of higher education in the state, which got under way Monday.

The governor is sincere in his desire to assist higher education, Wynne said, and to address some of the issues that all of the state's colleges and universities are facing, including enrollment, undergraduate tuition, and cost containment and efficiency.

"These are not new issues," he said. "They cross party lines. The intensity and importance of them, however, has increased over the years and we must be prepared to deal with all of them."

Wynne challenged the University to take a lead in discussion on these issue and to seek reasonable solutions. "We must work together to do what is good for Virginia, good for higher education, and good for U.Va."  

— by Carol Wood