In the wake of UVA President Theresa Sullivan’s forced resignation, the student newspaper The Cavalier Daily filed a FOIA request that revealed the centrality of online education in the Board of Visitors’ move to remove Sullivan from the presidency.  Jeffrey Rossman of the Charlottesville Daily Progress provided a useful summary of the emails.

Rossman outlines the three readings about online education that informed the conversations among the two key Visitors, Helen Dragas and Mark Kington, and alumnus (and major donor) Jeffrey Walker.  The first of these pieces is Ann Kirschner’s column “Innovations in Higher Education? Hah!” from the April 8th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Kirschner argues that institutions of higher education have been too slow to respond to the disruptive innovation in online learning and have therefore undermined their own efficiency:

Online courses are an important component of higher education’s productivity tool kit, one of the few that offers an intellectually rigorous, measurable, and fiscally responsible way to serve more students while making better use of physical space. We could have tremendous impact by shifting first-year, entry-level courses wholly or mostly online, developed cooperatively but taught locally. Sounds radical, but it’s a pretty old idea, put forth by Carol A. Twigg in 1999, and validated by trial programs over five years with 30 two- and four-year institutions. Her research documented that when institutions redesigned their large lecture courses, retention and learning outcomes improved, and costs went down. It is akin to hospitals discovering that cleanliness reduces bacteria and saves lives.

Kirschner’s invocation of Clayton M. Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma would strike businesspeople and investors with special force: Christensen’s influential argument concerns the susceptibility of seemingly dominant businesses to competitive challenges from smaller upstarts that, because they are smaller upstarts, can adjust to fast-changing environments without the pre-committed resources and organizational inertia that can afflict their seemingly invincible predecessors.

For me, this piece explains the actions of Dragas and Kington better than any other.  Seeing UVA as the established behemoth, beset not only by institutional inertia (and anybody who knows UVA understands the prominence of that inertia) but also by funding cuts and the expenses of an aggressive financial aid program, Dragas and Kington could have perceived three more years as too long to wait for a new president, and they could have justified their change of direction as a response to a radical shift in online education even in the two years of Sullivan’s term.

Crucially, in this view, public outcry from faculty, alumni, and even other members of the Board of Visitors was a predictable outcome that further reinforced the logic of the decision.  Sullivan’s popularity among these constituencies shows Sullivan to be on the wrong side of the contest resulting from disruptive innovation.

Dragas’s comments to date, while expressing regrets about process, express exactly this view of the public opposition to the substance of her her actions.  We are now seeing a contrary wave of pieces such as this by Johann Neem taking on the logic of disruptive innovation.  I anticipate the same debate playing out in my faculty meetings and, if applicable, yours over the coming year.


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