09/10/2012 05:08 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

UVa Resolution Points to Dire Need for Higher Education Reinvention

While the joke itself may not be new or innovative, it is apt.

From the afterlife, Alexander Graham Bell looks down on modern earth and is baffled by so many people stabbing their fingers at small slates of glass and plastic. "What happened to the telephone?" Bell asks.

At the same time, Wilhelm von Humbolt, the German whom many credit for founding in the early 1800s the model of the modern university, looks down at college campuses from the clouds and says to himself, "Just as I left it."

While there seems to be rhetorical consensus that higher education is in desperate need of fundamental reforms to reduce cost and ensure students are graduating with the skills currently in demand by employers, events this summer at the University of Virginia are simply the most recent disconnect between universities' words and actions.

With the significant caveat that my knowledge of the events at UVa come only from media reports and the public statements of the primary players involved, the center of the UVa debate was the dramatically different views of how quickly can, should and must a university change to meet rapidly changing societal needs.

More than two years ago my annual Address to the Community focused on the University of Toledo as a Relevant University. A Relevant University transforms itself at least as quickly -- preferably more quickly -- as the society it serves.

Those institutions that change in increments lose their relevance and find their students becoming like those highlighted in a New York Times story from last August who decided that the costs of a full-time traditional college education were too high. The Times highlighted the savings of those students who opted to enroll at online and for-profit educational enterprises and transferred those credits to a traditional institution.

For those in higher education who believe, as I do, that an accredited university offers superior educational outcomes as compared with for-profit, unaccredited education companies, the warning sirens should be blaring.

We would be wise to remember the words of Mahatma Ghandi: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

Right now, most of traditional higher education represents the "they," not the "you."

Beginning with the 2006 merger of The University of Toledo and the former Medical University of Ohio, the new UT has put forward a number of innovations, some which have pushed members of the University community out of their comfort zones.

In 2007 we froze tuition -- a move the led to a two-year state-wide freeze for all Ohio public universities. In 2008, we established Innovation Enterprises, a 501(c)(3) corporation to serve as UT's economic development arm to help faculty commercialize patents and research and to partner with economic development organizations throughout the northwest Ohio region.

In 2009 I announced -- to some gnashing of teeth -- I would personally interview all faculty tenure candidates prior to the university investing several million dollars over the several-decade career of a tenured faculty member. And in 2010, UT reorganized its academic colleges and created a series of schools designed to promote interdisciplinarity between fields of study, despite a lawsuit from the faculty collective bargaining unit.

With the exception of the tuition freeze, each of these efforts has run up against pushback from some within the institution who feel the moves are outside the traditional role of a University.

As we look at the national conversation about massive student debt, questions of whether students are learning and the perceived relevance of curriculum to the skills employers expect of new graduates, it is clearly time we embrace the fact that it is time to leave some -- just some -- of Mr. Humbolt's model in the past.

The point of the UVa situation is not to decide that the board was right and the president wrong or vice versa. The question is that if a president and board have such dramatically different views that they could not be bridged but for a forced resignation, how can UVa leaders' new, strained unity put forward a single vision of the University's path forward?

Following all the upheaval and reversals at University of Virginia, the central question of direction for Mr. Jefferson's university remains unanswered. The anti-innovation forces won, but the tension between its president and its board remains. An excellent school certainly, but a school that, as Mr. Humbolt might say today, is "just as I left it."