Sullivan speaks to Faculty Senate on summer’s turmoil, merit pay

UVA President Teresa Sullivan addresses the Faculty Senate on Tuesday, August 28. Photo: Graelyn Brashear. UVA President Teresa Sullivan addresses the Faculty Senate on Tuesday, August 28. Photo: Graelyn Brashear.

Tuesday night’s Faculty Senate town hall meeting with UVA President Teresa Sullivan at Darden’s Abbot Auditorium started on a light note.

Faculty Senate Chair George Cohen, a vocal and visible representative of his colleagues’ support of Sullivan throughout the summer’s attempted ouster, welcomed the crowd of hundreds and then brought out a special guest.

“I’d like to introduce my friend, the elephant in the room,” he said, and placed a small plush elephant on the podium.

The move got a lot of laughs, and set the tone for the evening: There were heavy topics to address—including some surprising new takes on faculty compensation—but the speeches and question-and-answer session, which together lasted more than an hour and a half, were woven together into an informal, straight-talk affair.

After Faculty Senate members gave brief updates on the task forces convened over the summer to address Board relations, online learning, and more, Sullivan gave an address that laid out the University’s top priorities: building the faculty, defining a strong curriculum, and supporting research. She emphasized it was time to work toward rebuilding trust with the Board of Visitors that tried to push her out—”That’s what public institutions do”—and she praised the faculty’s passion in speaking up before and after her reinstatement.

Not every topic was one guaranteed to warm faculty hearts.

Sullivan used her time onstage to emphasize her support for merit-based pay based on peer reviews. It’s a system that many in higher education shrink from, but one she said was necessary to strengthen the faculty in a time when UVA is facing a wave of new boomer retirements.

“The peer review system here works very well in the tenure process, but I believe that we use peer review too little over the course of the academic career,” she said. In part, that’s because they take time. “But if we are able to secure more substantial funds for merit increases, as I propose to do, we need to see a major change in the way departments evaluate their faculty and distribute the money.”

She got some pushback. During the Q&A, a reader offered a question that had been passed along by an audience member who wanted to know if supporting merit raises during a salary freeze meant Sullivan thought only the best and brightest deserve pay that keeps up with cost of living increases. “As a labor scholar, do you really think that at UVA, (a professor) who might be average in terms of merits deserves to see his or her salary decline in real terms?” the questioner asked.

“I think the assumption there is that I think merit is relatively sparsely distributed among the faculty,” Sullivan fired back. “Because it’s a merit increase doesn’t mean it has to go to a tiny fraction of the faculty. What I don’t want is a system in which administrators only make that decision, which is what happens in many cases right now. So I’m looking for a situation in which we realize and appreciate one another’s merit, and also understand that it’s multivalent, it comes in many forms, and many people possess it.”

Despite some wariness of the push for a new compensation system, the attitude among attendees as the crowd filed out was largely positive, and Sullivan scored points for her willingness to talk directly to faculty. It was a powerful counterpoint to the lack of transparency demonstrated by UVA’s Board of Visitors over the summer, said Curry School of Education professor Walt Heinecke, who starts teaching an oral history class tomorrow focused on the failed ouster.

“The fact that she’s willing to sit in the hot seat and take questions is pretty important. She’s serious about taking opportunities and events and learning from it,” he said. And that speaks well for the future of the University.

“I’m as optimistic as I’ve ever been,” he said.

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