University of Virginia Reinstates President, But Colleges Face More Drama Ahead

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Sabrina Schaeffer / The Daily Progress / AP

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan walks through a crowd of supporters on her way to the Board of Visitors meeting at the Rotunda on Monday, June 18, 2012, in Charlottesville, Va.

Trustees at the University of Virginia voted unanimously on Tuesday to reinstate the president they ousted just two weeks ago. But while the decision to restore Teresa Sullivan to the position she had held since August 2010 brings to an end days of swirling uncertainty, speculation and campus protests, the issues the drama brought to the forefront are likely to echo across college campuses nationwide for months to come.

Rector Helen Dragas, the head of the university board (known as the Board of Visitors) — and an individual widely seen as an instigator for Sullivan's removal in the first place — said she hoped the decision would reunite the campus community. "It's time to bring the university family back together," she said at the meeting, according to Inside Higher Ed. For her part, Sullivan said she and the trustees need to work together to put the debacle behind them. "I need to have your support," she said, according to Inside Higher Ed. "I need you to reach out to your networks around the commonwealth and the world to help us move forward."

The reunification is desperately needed on the campus that has been in upheaval following the sudden announcement of Sullivan's departure on June 10. In the days since, the board's vice rector stepped down, one professor resigned in protest, and students and faculty held rallies in support of the popular president on campus and spray painted the word "GREED" on the columns of the school's famed Rotunda building. The chaos intensified on June 19 when the board ignored demands from the faculty to offer a more detailed explanation for why it pushed Sullivan out, and met in a closed door session to appoint an interim president. Tuesday's decision came after Governor Robert McDonnell, who appoints the board members, threatened to ask the entire board to step down if it was unable to decide conclusively whether to reinstate Sullivan or move on without her.

In a lengthy statement applauding the decision, McDonnell said, "The past few weeks have not been easy for the University, and all those who love it. There has been too little transparency; too much vitriol. Too little discussion; too much blame. Now, with today's Board action, the time has come for Mr. Jefferson's University to move forward. The statements made today by Board members and President Sullivan were poignant and gracious and set the right tone for collaboration ahead."

But while the decision resolves the immediate situation in Charlottesville, the reaction around the country over the past two weeks makes clear that there are deep divisions in academia over how to run a university at a time when virtually all public universities are grappling with dwindling financial resources.

Here are three key issues to watch in the coming months:

PROFESSORS OR CEOS? Should a university campus be run like a business? The reactions to Sullivan's dismissal showed clearly that while many faculty members believe academic credentials should trump other considerations in the president's role, others increasingly worry that the job is more akin to CEO — a role most academics have little experience with. If the worriers are right, colleges need business acumen at the top to take quicker, more decisive action than is typical of academia, move more responsively to changes in the marketplace and balance budgets.

THE MOOC FACTOR One of the more contentions issues that emerged in the Sullivan saga was uncertainty over how higher education is being altered by the rise of MOOCs, or massively open online courses. After the UVA student newspaper submitted a FOIA request, the university released several emails from Rector Dragas that indicate she and others were keenly aware of the attention elite schools like Harvard and Stanford were getting for starting up MOOCs, a trend that some experts say will fundamentally alter college education.

RISINGS COSTS FOR STUDENTS Over the past year, state funding for higher education has declined by nearly 8%. What that means: at a time when demand for degrees is at an all-time high, there is $6 billion less being funneled into the nation's public colleges and universities. As resources dwindle, universities are left with little choice but to put more of the financial burden on students who are already taking on record levels of debt. To compensate for the lack of funds, universities face decisions about shrinking the number of enrollment slots they can offer, recruiting more students from out-of-state and even internationally, cutting back on the number of courses offered and scaling back the number of full-time professors they employ.