PR Challenges Test UVA, Higher Education

The struggling economy has consumers questioning the value of everything that costs money, from laundry detergent and motorcycle tires to bottled ketchup and college credits. As college tuitions continue to increase, saddling graduates with tremendous amounts of debt in an economy that offers limited employment opportunities, students and their families are questioning the true value of a college education. And so are universities.

Take the University of Virginia, for instance, which is experiencing something of an identity crisis. The resignation of president Teresa Sullivan created an outcry from faculty, alumni and students who believe she was unfairly coerced into leaving her coveted position by a Board of Visitors driven by financial motives. It’s become a battle over academic values, transparency, power, and the future of a hallowed institution that as of August 16 will be under the helm of Carl Zeithaml, dean of the university’s McIntire School of Commerce.

Zeithaml specializes in “strategic management with an emphasis on global and competitive strategy.” Perhaps a strategic global perspective is a quality that UVA is looking for in a permanent president. Maybe it’s one that all universities should seek.

Just like many businesses in the private sector, colleges and universities are wrestling with the many challenges posed by an anemic economy. Implementing budget cuts and austerity measures means having to make difficult decisions about what is being offered to whom and for how much. And consumers must decide how much they’re willing to pay. Just how much, for example, is a degree in English literature from Princeton worth? How about an engineering degree from Texas A&M? Or a business degree from the University of Phoenix?

Perception is reality, and the prolonged poor economic climate has changed the way many view the value of a college education. The facts, of course, don’t lie: Having a college degree translates into much greater financial, and arguably spiritual, windfall over time. But that doesn’t mean that both schools and students aren’t now, more than ever, trying to figure out just what they can offer each other, and subsequently our society. All eyes are on UVA.