I would like to add my voice to the many others in Virginia welcoming the new President of University of Virginia, Theresa Sullivan, who began her term on August 1, 2010. Last week I read a detailed account of her first press conference on the university’s website:
I was pleased and impressed by President Sullivan’s evident communications skills as well as her grasp of the challenges she faces leading an institution which is simultaneously an object of pride, bordering on reverence, by Commonwealth parents of school age children, recently, neglect by the governor and the legislature and, most remarkably, an object of attack by the attorney general (who sued the University to obtain a former professor’s research papers).
Among President Sullivan’s early responsibilities will be figuring out how to use the help provided by Governor McDonnell, in the form of the “Governor’s Commission on Higher Education Reform, Innovation and Investment.” Formed this past session by executive order, the stated program for this body of 40 Commonwealth leaders in government, education and industry is breathtaking. For example; prevent significant and unexpected tuition increases; increase significantly enrollment and degree attainment; prepare young people for STEM (science, technology, engineering; and math); public-private partnerships; make Virginia a leader in education for military and veterans; “sustainable” higher education funding model; increase quality instruction and achieve cost savings through reform; focus financial resources on core mission of educating students. The Commission’s first meeting was in July and their final report is due in November.
Please forgive me for my skepticism, but I know what I mean when I use the words “reform,” “innovation” and “investment,” and I’m not sure my views will align with those of the Commission staff members that have been assigned to the effort by the Governor and the Secretary of Education. For example, the make-up of this Commission, alone, suggests that a major “reform” recommendation will be increasing reliance on “for profit” private education firms and online educational delivery. (There! I just saved the Commonwealth $10,000 on staff hours). However, I do not think that such “reforms” diminish the need for, or the demonstrable economic value of adequately funded community colleges and public universities.
I suppose that navigating the turbulent waters of Virginia politics is an important part of the job description of the president of the 23rd ranking university in America. However, I truly hope that President Sullivan will be embraced by the Governor and the Legislature in a non-partisan way and accorded the respect due a world class educator whom, I am certain, is committed to and capable of serving the best interests of the myriad of UVA stakeholders: students, faculty, administrators, parents, citizens, alumni, sister institutions, the business community, the legislature and the Governor. Of course, we know that all of these interests are strongly felt, staunchly defended and often conflict!
While I support the spirit of innovation described in the Charter of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education, I do not support the theory-often openly espoused in our Legislature-that starving a public institution by withholding resources is an efficient way to stimulate innovation. Rather, I believe the legislature should be clear on the performance objectives we have for UVA and all of the higher education institutions we fund, and to respect the judgment of the professionals in charge as to how best to apply Commonwealth resources to achieve these goals. I feel certain that the Legislature must increase Virginia’s financial support for all of higher education, so that its leaders can focus on the real challenges of maintaining quality undergraduate instruction, professional schools and research environments which I believe are integral to the long-term prosperity of the Commonwealth.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected].