Higher education sounds an awful lot like Borders right now

An old Borders location in San Diego, CA

In the June 26, 2012 New York Times, a great article titled “Public universities see familiar fight at Virginia”. In describing recent events at the University of Virginia, author Tamar Lewin perfectly captures the difficult situation in which highered finds itself.

Here is ex-President, rumored to soon be reinstated President, Teresa Sullivan commenting on online education:

Dr. Sullivan said that online education was no panacea — and indeed, was “surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential and unless carefully managed can undermine the quality of instruction.”

Doesn’t this sound familiar? Let’s see, where have I heard these words before? Oh, yes:

  • As a leading retailer, Sears has found that selling clothes online is no panacea and, indeed, is surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential (compared to our vast network of stores) and, unless carefully managed, can undermine the personal service that we provide our customers.
  • As a leading bookstore, Borders has found that selling books online is no panacea and, indeed, is surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential (compared to our vast and growing network of stores) and, unless carefully managed, can undermine the personal, in-depth, knowledgeable service that we provide our customers.

Not a good sign for highered, for sure. The following is a great description of how highered leadership works, and provides insight into the difficulties people in those positions face:

And while she agreed that she is, indeed, an incrementalist, she stressed that that did not mean she lacked a strategic plan.

“Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university,” she said. “Sustained change with buy-in does work.”

Many public university presidents, past and present, said that those on the boards of the leading universities — typically business executives without much experience in academia — do not always understand the complexities of leading a large research university, and the degree to which a president can succeed only by persuading.

The UVA board tried to move quickly — too quickly, it turns out — but I wouldn’t be surprised if the next board is successful in getting its way because the situation is becoming untenable for too many institutions. Faculty salaries are going to have to be cut drastically; classes are going to have to increase in size; and educational technologies are going to have to be deployed (effectively, let’s hope) on a fairly extensive scale. Difficult choices have to be made. Reality must be faced, and soon. Getting a president reinstated doesn’t change any of that.

Finally some clarity surrounding the turmoil at UVA


What a week at the University of Virginia. This article at the Chronicle of Higher Education finally provides some clarity surrounding Teresa Sullivan’s abrupt departure as president. So few details had been available that it most of what I read was simply speculation surrounding very few hard facts. Now it appears that the underlying philosophical disagreement with the board and important donors had to do with Dr. Sullivan’s apparent attitude toward online education.

UVA is a history-laden university in ways that very few other higher education institutions can claim. They are, rightfully, very proud of this history and all that they stand for. Most universities are slow to move because of their size and complexity. Further, they are led by senior faculty who are by their very nature conservative — after all, they have chosen a career in which the goal is to attain a position in which they cannot be fired! Given UVA’s history, I can only imagine that these forces might be even stronger in Charlottesville.

Given all of this, the upheaval caused by the changes going on related to online learning (efforts by Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and even Michigan) has clearly shocked the campus. Some are apparently worried that they are going to be left behind, necessitating drastic changes. Others think that, as usual, measured steps are needed. Whatever the case, it can’t be the case that your position is I need to think about that. We all need to think through our position on this, to come to some decisions, and to have a strategy for addressing it now and over the next three to five years.

What is your strategy?