Charting the future
Students should remain invested in the strategic-planning process
For nearly a year, the University has been drafting a strategic plan. The strategic plan is a document that defines the school’s goals and priorities for the future. It sets the tone for what kind of institution the University will be. It also suggests ways that the school could divvy out its limited resources. A strategic plan lays out a broad vision to guide the particular actions that University leaders take in the future.
Last semester’s strategic-planning process featured an admirable level of student involvement. All the working groups included undergraduate students, as did the strategic planning steering committee. What’s more, these groups solicited student input through dinners and forums.
The open-forum phase in strategic planning has ended, and many of the students most closely involved in the process have graduated. But that does not mean that the next steps of strategic planning cannot feature some of the same collaborative efforts that characterized last semester’s discussions.
Earlier this month University President Teresa Sullivan unveiled five “pillars” of the strategic plan. These pillars urge the University to strengthen the school’s “residential culture,” serve the public through advancing knowledge, engage students through new educational experiences, support faculty, and promote academic excellence and affordable access.
Some of these pillars — advancing knowledge, launching new educational experiences — are too vague or conventional to merit much of a pause. Others are worth commenting on, because the University already seems in danger of falling short of several of its self-defined pillars — even before the strategic plan is finalized.
The pillar calling for the stewardship of a “distinctive residential culture” suggests that the people crafting the plan are suspicious, at least to some degree, of how sizable a role online learning will play in higher education’s future. Though distance learning and online education rank among the hot-button topics that college and university leaders nationwide are discussing, the architects of the University’s strategic plan are staking a strong claim on the value of residential education by including it as the plan’s first pillar. The amount of money the University has recently spent on construction, not to mention the school’s distinctive and much-loved architecture, further suggests that residential education will remain a higher priority than online-learning efforts. This is not to say that the University cannot serve both on-Grounds students and students who commute or take courses online. Indeed, the school has thousands of off-Ground students enrolled each year.
It is hard to avoid reading the “residential culture” pillar as an argument about online education and its limits. Nonetheless, University leaders are, at least in the public eye, paying homage to the online-learning hype that is widespread in higher-education circles. Politics Prof. Larry Sabato’s massive open online course on Kennedy is the latest high-profile example.
The pillar calling for the support of distinguished faculty also invites comment. The Cavalier Daily has repeatedly called on the University to make raising faculty salaries a priority. The University’s 2013-14 operating budget, which the Board of Visitors approved in May, included funding to boost faculty compensation through merit-based increases, though not across-the-board raises. To increase faculty salaries to the top 20 of the American Association of Universities, much more work remains to be done.
What about the “affordable access” pillar? The goal of affordable access sustained a blow when the Board approved a plan to eliminate all-grant aid for the school’s lowest-income students. If AccessUVa in its new form proves more sustainable — as the plan’s advocates argued — and helps more low-income students over a longer period of time, then we can count the recent decision as a win for “affordable access.” A durable but moderate financial-aid system trumps a short-lived and highly generous one. But it is hard to resist the conclusion that reducing the amount of aid the school gives to lowest-income students diminishes “affordable access” to the same degree.
We examine the strategic plan’s pillars to suggest that students can, and should, remain involved in the planning process in two ways. One way is by offering direct feedback: emailing the steering committee and others involved in the drafting the document, and participating in the public-comment period when the draft plan is distributed later in the process. Another way is to hold University leaders to the strategic pillars they have already put forward. Students who think that recent decisions about online learning, financial aid, or other aspects of University life mark a step in the wrong direction now have another document — the emerging strategic plan — that they can point to.