The big story in higher education circles last week was the firing and rehiring of Teresa Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia. The ostensible reason for the firing was that she was not reacting quickly enough to the changing educational marketplace. But, of course, it’s hard to say what the right course of action is.
An education is a expensive investment, and families want to get their money’s worth. But what is it that they are buying? A signal that the student is college material? Skills that are applicable to the first job out of college? Skills that are applicable to a job 10 or 15 or 20 years from now? Contacts and membership in a lifelong network of movers and shakers? Enlightenment? A four-year party?
I’m not sure there is any consensus among the people who pay for education – students and families – about what they are getting other than some vague idea of a chance at a better life. But given the vagaries, it’s no surprise that no one really know what an education for the next century should be, either. The University of Virginia isn’t moving quickly because it’s not clear which direction it should go in.
The traditional research university will look very different in 20 or 30 years. State funding is drying up, the standard academic career path is no longer a viable model, and the world is changing at an upsetting rate. So yes, it will look different. But what will it look like?
Beats me. And the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia don’t know, either. That’s the problem.