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How hard is it, really, to run a university?

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So you're the university president. You have to balance professors' dreams of a talented student body and a bigger research budget with students' desires for small classes and smaller tuition increases.

And yes, the trustees want you to raise the institution's prestige. Meanwhile, alumni are on your case to have a winning football team.

Is that so tough?

If you have a computer, you can soon find out.

Virtual U is a computer-simulation game where players assume the role of university president. Funded by $1 million from the nonprofit Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, the program was designed to help leaders in higher education better understand the challenges facing American universities. The Sloan Foundation hopes Virtual U will help address concerns found in its 1993 report on higher-education management. Some of these include: the time required to obtain degrees, faculty aging and salary structure, and the implications of distance learning for competition among institutions.

A key contributor to Virtual U is William Massy, who spent 30 years as an administrator at Stanford University in California. Mr. Massy has spent the past three years working on the project with Jesse Ausubel, a project director at the foundation who had simultaneously come up with the same idea for a university simulation game.

"We think it is fun," said Massy. "It is not fun in the sense that you fire it up and start shooting at someone or drive a tank through the Sahara. On the other hand, it has some whimsy in it, and there is a lot of stuff happening."

In designing the game, Massy and Mr. Ausubel included detailed data from 1,200 US academic institutions, as well as information culled from government sources.

Players strive for continuous improvement by setting, monitoring, and modifying a variety of institutional policies, such as minority enrollment, creative resource allocation, and tenure. The program measures time passing at a rate chosen by players, allowing them to watch as the results of their decisions unfold.

Virtual U is expected to be sold commercially for about $129 when it is released in several weeks. The demonstration Web site is www.virtual-u.org.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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