Friday, June 22, 2012

Statement from Helen E. Dragas to the University Community

Statement from Helen E. Dragas to the University Community
Rector, University of Virginia
June 21, 2012

In my statement to the Board on Monday, I conveyed my heartfelt apologies for the pain, anger and confusion that has swept the Grounds over the last 10 days, and said that the UVA family deserved better from your Board.

I also indicated that this University was entitled to a fuller explanation of the Board's thinking for collectively taking the action that we did, and explained that, as Visitors, we have the very highest aspirations for the University of Virginia -- for it to reach its fullest potential as a 21st century Academical Village, always rooted firmly in our enduring values of honor, integrity and trust -- and that we want the University to be a leader in fulfilling its mission, not a follower.

Although I was reluctant to go into detail on our concerns, as I said, we owe you a more specific outline of the serious strategic challenges that alarmed us about the direction of the University.  No matter how you feel about our actions, these challenges represent some very high hurdles that stand in the way of our University's path to continued success in the coming decade, and they are going to remain front and center for the next Board and the next President over the coming years.  Simply put, the UVA family must be clear-eyed about the shoals and dangers that exist below the surface, and the hard work and strategic planning it will take for this community to navigate them together.

While the UVA student experience remains premiere, though our faculty creates dynamic newknowledge every day, and despite the enduring magic of Mr. Jefferson's University, the bottom line is the days of incremental decision-making in higher education are over, or should be.  For some time, the Board of Visitors has been concerned about the following difficult challenges facing the University - most of which are not unique to UVA -- and we concluded that their structural and long-term nature demanded a deliberate and strategic approach, not an incremental one.

1.     State and federal funding challenges - Since 2000, state funding per student has declined from $15,300 to $8,300 per student in constant dollars.  Governor McDonnell has done much to restore stability to state funding, but the outlook for economic growth in this area over the long term is bleak.  Federal research funding and federal support of student loans are both in decline, with no expectation of a recovery, putting pressure on the University to replace these revenue sources with sustainable alternatives.  The University has no long-range plan to do so.

2.     The changing role of technology in adding value to the reach and quality of the educational experience of our students.  Bold experimentation and advances by the distinguished likes of Stanford, Harvard, and MIT have brought online learning into the mainstream, virtually overnight.  Stanford's president, John Hennessy, predicted that "there's a tsunami coming", based on the response to online course offerings at Stanford (one course enrolled an astounding 160,000 students).  Michigan, Penn, Princeton, Yale, and Carnegie Mellon are all taking aggressive steps in this direction.  The University of Virginia has no centralized approach to dealing with this potentially transformational development.

3.     A dynamic and rapidly changing health care environment. The UVA Medical Center, while excelling at cutting edge patient care and research, competes with competent and sophisticated private health systems providing high quality health care in a market undergoing substantive structural change.  At the behest of the Board of Visitors, the Medical Center undertook a strategic planning study in 2011 that resulted in a well-articulated plan.  Implementation will require strong leadership and very ambitious interim steps.

4.     Heightened pressure for prioritization of scarce resources.  Difficult choices will have to be made to balance competing demands for financial aid (the University's generous, $95 million per year financial aid program, AccessUVA, has consumed resources at an unsustainable and alarming rate over the last five years, yet it is considered necessary to compete with many elite private institutions in attracting the best and the brightest students) and faculty and staff recruitment, and retention.  A wave of faculty retirements is coming over the next seven years, and faculty retention is increasingly difficult due to stagnation in faculty salaries.  The College of Arts and Sciences alone estimates it would take $130 million by 2016 to provide competitive compensation and start-up costs to fulfill its aspirations in the humanities and the sciences.  Yet, the University has no articulated long-range plan that prioritizes these competing demands for resources.

5.     Issues of faculty workload and the quality of the student experience.  The ratio of students to faculty is deteriorating.  This change has not occurred as a part of a thoughtful process and planned strategy to integrate technology into introductory courses while extending importantsmall group and individual interactions between faculty and students.  Rather, it reflects the stresses of increased enrollment and insufficient resource prioritization.

6.     Issues of declining relative faculty compensation.  In a letter dated May 11, 2012, the College of Arts and Sciences faculty issued a letter to the Board almost identical to one it issued to the Presidential search committee in 2009.  It demanded urgency in addressing the decline of UVA in faculty compensation from 26th to 36th since 2005 among Association of American University peers, and noted our relatively poor performance vis-à-vis key public competitors such as UCLA, Berkeley, Michigan, and UNC.

7.     Drifting engagement direction - The securing of philanthropic gifts and grants from a broader base of supporters is critically important as our devoted volunteer leadership attempts to finish the UVA capital campaign. Large gifts received over the last year include much appreciated, donor-driven funds for international squash courts and contemplative sciences (the confluence of Eastern thought, yoga, meditation, etc.).  Central institutional priorities should be articulated and highlighted for engagement, but cannot be without development of a specific vision and plan.

8.     Research funding and activity - Research funding has been in decline, and we have decreased in federal higher education research rankings in the past five years.  In 2008, we were #70 in the nation overall (compared to Virginia Tech's #43 ranking). These statistics are incongruous with other characteristics of the University that suggest we should be a research powerhouse.  Mr. Jefferson's vision for his University and his early encouragement of the sciences suggests the same.  In areas of applied research, UVA often is not the first institution in Virginia that governmental units and businesses go to when they need a partner.

9.     Increasing accountability for academic quality and productivity.  These issues are foremost on the minds of students, family, and legislators.  The Board well understands that curricular programming is the responsibility of the faculty, and the Board has never suggested any specific curricular adjustments.  It is the Board's responsibility, however, to ask for evidence that the current curriculum is meeting its stated goals and also to ask how well anyparticular curriculum or program actually prepares UVA graduates for the increasingly complex, international world in which they will live and compete.  There is no long-term program in place for assessment, reporting, and improvement in many disciplines.

10.  Increasing importance of a proactive, contemporary communications function.  The recent events unfolding at UVA have proven a demonstrated need to fortify university communications functions with updated technologies.  We need faster, multi-platform communications including cutting-edge use of mobile, digital and social media to complement a more traditional media-relations function and press outreach to tell the UVA story.

This is but a partial list.  Put together, these challenges represent an extremely steep climb, even if the University were lean and on top of its game.  Yet in the face of these challenges, the University still lacks an updated strategic plan.

Believe it or not, the last time the University developed a concrete, strategic plan was a decade ago - in2002.  We deserve better - the rapid development of a plan that includes goals, costs, sources of funds, timelines and individual accountability.   And, without micromanaging details such as calling for the elimination of specific programs or mandating distance learning, the Board did insist, and still insists, that the University leadership move in a timely, thoughtful, and organized fashion to address these and similar issues.  Failing this, the University of Virginia will continue to drift in yesterday.

At the time of President Casteen's retirement, the search process should have included a thoughtful assessment by uninvested third parties who, in collaboration with the institution's stakeholders, would have examined everything from academic programs, faculty assignments, student services, research activity, technology, tuition and admissions strategies, administrative expenditures,public service and outreach, private support, the Medical School and hospital, and, yes, governance, both at the administrative and board levels.

With this said, I agree with critics who say that we should have handled the situation better.  In my view, we did the right thing, the wrong way.  For this, I sincerely apologize, and this and future boards will learn from our mistakes.  However, as much as our action to effect a change in leadership has created a wave of controversy, it was motivated by an understanding of the very stiff headwinds we face as a University, and our resolve to push through them to forge a future that is even brighter than imaginable today.

Helen Dragas, Rector approved distribution of this message.


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Monday, June 18, 2012

Statement of Faculty Senate Executive Council Concerning Meeting with Rector Dragas

Statement of Faculty Senate Executive Council Concerning Meeting with Rector Dragas
June 18, 2012

This morning, the Faculty Senate Executive Council met with Rector Dragas to discuss the recent resignation of President Sullivan.  We invited the Vice Rector, but he did not attend. The purpose of the meeting was to allow the Council to ask questions raised by the University faculty concerning recent events, and to hear the Board’s perspective.
We asked the Rector about the process and the reasons behind President Sullivan’s resignation; the principles of shared governance between the faculty, administration and the Board; the Board’s desire for a strategic plan; and the Board’s justification for the speedy and secretive nature of its actions.
We had a cordial discussion. Based on extensive input from our faculty constituents and the Rector’s responses to our questions, we made the following requests:
1.     That the Board delay the naming of any interim president to provide an opportunity for shared governance;
2.     That President Sullivan be reinstated;
3.     That the Board recommend representation by UVA faculty on the Board as voting members; and
4.     That the Rector and Vice Rector resign in the best interests of the University.
Senators, please forward this message to any and all.
This is to be a silent protest to show our support for President Sullivan and our disapproval of the secretive and irregular process used by the Rector and a small collection of the Board of Visitors to force her resignation.

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Monday, February 20, 2012

Financial Education

I just finished reading Dave Ramsey's book The Total Money Makeover last week, and I'm considering buying his Foundations in Personal Finance - Home School program for the kids to play around with. We're going through the Baby Steps ourselves, and it seems like this would be a great program for our kids to try. Anyone have experience with the Foundations program?

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What We're Up To

I realized I haven't posted anything about what we've all been up to in quite a long time now. Almost two years ago, my husband went back to school to get an AAS at Piedmont Virginia Community College, studying electronics and computer technology. This is where his interests have always lain, and I'm so excited for him to be able to learn more and then also work in his field of interest and his greatest strength.
That doesn't mean that I was at all interested in having to find a job to put food on the table and keep our health insurance. The first year was extremely difficult for me. I knew what I was doing was what had to be done for all of us, but after staying home for so long, I really wasn't prepared to stop doing what I loved--homeschooling and hanging out with my kids, their friends, and my friends, volunteering for our statewide homeschool organization (, running our local homeschool yahoo list--over 600 members! Not to mention have time to read and surf the web and play World of Warcraft, garden, raise hens, do laundry . . .

But I did find work, and at first was just working 20 hours a week. After not too long, it was obvious that I needed more hours and better pay. After wrapping my brain (heart) around that fact, I was able to find full-time (32 hrs a week) work, and it's a job I enjoy doing. I'm working four days a week, so I get to spend Wednesdays with the kids, doing what I normally would have been doing.

We've relied heavily on friends and my parents to take over some of the things I had been doing with the kids--sports, dance, playdates, Emily's volunteering at the library, became much harder to schedule, and we couldn't have continued without their help. School was never an option. I'm forever grateful to you guys.

I don't know exactly what's in store for us for the next year. Eddie's got one more full-time school year until he gets his degree, but he's working full-time this summer at a job that is perfect for him and that he is just awesome at.

Meanwhile, we managed a few trips to see friends over the last two years. The kids and I went to Tennessee twice for the Autodidactic Radical Gathering of Homeschoolers (ARGH). Eddie had exams and couldn't make it. We all went to SC for the Beach Unschoolers Gathering. The kids and I had a great time in Williamsburg at Great Wolf Lodge for their homeschool days last December, and met up with some friends there. I can't wait to do it again! We also traveled to Maryland to stay with unschooling friends of ours--we need to plan another trip soon! Those were the big things, though I could be forgetting something.

Emily participated in the East Tennessee Unschooled Summer Camp (ETUSC) last summer. Eddie and Thomas went and stayed down there for the week, since Eddie didn't have classes. This summer when she goes again, we're all going to stay there. And I know Thomas will want to participate the following year, when he's old enough.

So far this summer, we've joined a local pool but have only gone a few times. Eddie's son Nick and his wife Catherine have been helping out so much, by coming to the house on Mondays and Fridays, and taking Emily and Thomas wherever they need to go, or else just staying home and playing games with them. Nick still wins every game of Risk . . . We are also doing some bowling through the AMF Kegler free kids' summer bowling program.

Fridays after Five has been a really nice thing to look forward to each week. Emily loves to hang out on the Downtown Mall with friends, and I enjoy eating dinner with Eddie or with friends, or both. :) Thomas enjoys going occasionally, as well. I love that they can have the freedom to wander around, shop, goof off, listen to music even (LOL), without feeling like we're hovering over them. I don't usually see them till it's time to go. Cell phones are awesome tools!

Ok, I've got this week off, and things to do, so that's it for now! I'll try to post some pictures soon. And thanks for reading!

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Thursday, December 09, 2010

From Swiss Army Wife: The Secret to My Patience

I really enjoyed this blog post by Heather at Swiss Army Wife:

"No… that’s not it at all. I haven’t been blessed with some magical patience gene. In actuality, I hate waiting and I like instant gratification. Impatience, isn’t one of my better qualities, but as I get older and gain more experience, I learn to cope and try not to negatively affect others with my eager ways.

So what is it then? Why do people compliment me on my patience? Why do I hear “I don’t know how you do it” and “you’re so patient” coming from people outside my household.

It’s not patience. It’s perspective."

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Impromptu Unschooling Blog Carnival

This is a really fun-to-read, inspiring bunch of blog posts. Ronnie has most of them linked in the comments at her post at Blog of the Zombie Princess.

Inspired by Flo's delicious post here. It's an impromptu blog carnival! Join in!

I'm that mom who drives 500 miles because her kids want to see their friends, because her kids don't feel like riding the train again, because her kids want to go now instead of in a couple of weeks when the trip could be combined with another trip. I'm that mom who knows it's a frivolous, indulgent, even "stupid" thing to do but does it anyway.

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Friday, July 09, 2010

A Few Recent Pictures to Share

My brother and his wife and adorable kids are in town visiting. We went bowling one day--

We've got bluebird babies about ready to fledge. The parents are waiting to feed them.

And we've always got something interesting happening down at the chicken coop.

This poor little hen was attacked by a fox but I think I disturbed it and ran it off before it could kill her. She had a huge bruise on her neck/back, which is looking much better. She can move all appendages and her neck. She just won't sit or stand up. So we're nursing her back, hoping she just needs to recover from bruising. Kind of a hysterical picture though. :) Sometimes we go to see her and she's managed to push herself onto her back. Not how you normally picture a living chicken!

And this is one of our handsome roosters.

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Thursday, July 01, 2010

July Blog Carnival--Night Life

This month's carnival by Enjoy Life Unschooling is about Night Life:


For July the topic for our blog carnival is: burning the midnight oil, unschooling sleep and sleeplessness. Posts from seasoned and new unschoolers are welcome.

If you like to work from writing prompts here are some questions to get you going:

  • What are some of your favorite late night adventures?
  • Ever had your kids want to do or talk about something late at night?
  • Did you transition to “no bedtimes” or did it all flow naturally?
  • How and where does everyone sleep? Family bed? Musical beds?
  • How do you and your spouse get “quality time” together?
  • How do you get your personal needs met when kids are “up all night”?
  • When visiting family and friends, do you get questions or unpleasant comments? How do you deal?

The deadline for submissions is June 28 – please send links to your submissions to

Look forward to reading your stories!
The crew at Enjoy Life Unschooling

There are a bunch of great posts to read over there:

"This month we have several posts from unschooling bloggers about bed times, sleep, and nighttime fun. They are tales of adventure, informative pieces, personal stories and thoughts of perspective shifts."

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Summer Camp for Homeschoolers Near Richmond, VA

Kids loving Summer!

Camp Whispering Woods is a small overnight/Day coed Adventure Camp located in western Hanover County, VA , 20 minutes northwest Of Richmond. Our dream of providing kids ages 8-16 with a summer experience like no other will leave our campers wanting to return year after year.

We pride ourselves in creating a structured yet relaxed atmosphere in which kids are free to explore and try new things. We custom create an experience based on individual likes and dislikes. Our hope is that by participating in Camp Whispering Woods activities, our campers will make new friends, increase self-esteem, learn to work as part of a team, take responsibility, build positive values, and have fun doing it!

Camp Whispering Woods is privately owned and operated by a local home schooling family. The camp features over 10 acres of scenic woods with creeks and hiking trails to explore on foot. We have a swimming pool and a paintball field and offer arts and crafts, cooking, gaming, photography, good ole fashion running tag games, camp fires, Segway riding, and more.

Campers sleep in a cabin, a tent or in the Main-house. We want each child to be comfortable and think of camp as a home away from home.

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Unschooling Rules: Off-Topic: A Gravity Composter for the Lazy Gardeners

Unschooling Rules: Off-Topic: A Gravity Composter for the Lazy Gardeners

I love composting, but have hated all of the steps that have traditionally gone with it. I did not want to shovel or sift or spin or even think about which composter was currently in use.

So, I put together a composting system that works really well. I thought I would share it here, as it epitomizes how I like to think about the world.

This is a cool idea. I might have to talk to Eddie about helping me make a composter like this one. :)

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