Rawlings discusses issues facing public education

Association of American Universities President focuses on challenges facing state institutions


The University’s efforts to make sense of its position within the higher-education landscape in the uncertain months following University President Teresa Sullivan’s forced resignation this summer continued Monday with a talk from Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities.

Students and faculty struggled to find seats in Minor Hall auditorium to listen to the former Cornell president discuss the plight of public universities.

The attempted ouster of Sullivan is part of a pattern among public universities, Rawlings said. Thirteen of the 34 public universities in the AAU have seen presidents depart in the last 18 months. He said the University’s case, however, stood apart because of the Board’s abrupt, opaque decision making.

He cited financial difficulties and the corporatization of the University as central to June’s events.

“Gone are the days when the university could be described as an ivory tower or Academical Village … it is now a cosmopolis,” Rawlings said.

Virginia is not the only state in which higher education is struggling, Rawlings said. Texas, in particular, is under assault. Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s plan, which would reduce the cost of a four-year degree to $10,000, concerns Rawlings, who described it as too vocationally oriented. But Rawlings predicted other states would build off of Texas’ model.

University Rector Helen Dragas released a statement during the summer hinting at a desire to fundamentally change the way the University operates.

“The world is simply moving too fast,” she said.

One solution has gained traction with the announcement of the University’s partnership with online-learning company Coursera: massive open online courses.

But Rawlings said nothing can replace the face-to-face interactions that are the hallmarks of a university education.

The drive for online learning, he said, was likely “based on superficial excitement over new technologies.” Investing large sums of money in online education, as Columbia did during the dot-com craze with an online learning platform known as Fathom, is often counterproductive, Rawlings added. Fathom, for example, went defunct in 2003.

To preserve public universities state legislatures should make public higher education funding a higher priority, Rawlings said.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has kept higher education funding intact in his most recent budget. The budget also indicated University faculty will receive a 2 percent raise next year.

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