Thursday, June 21, 2012

UVA in Crisis, or, Who Controls State Universities?

As the crisis at the University of Virginia rumbles on, I am pondering who ought to run the university in the first place. UVA's popular president, Teresa Sullivan, was ousted by the Board of Visitors in what struck many people as a midnight coup. The faculty are up in arms in her defense, and many students are upset, too. So far as any outsider can tell, the issue was a clash of visions and personalities between Sullivan and the Rector of the Board, property developer Helen Dragas.

The complaints that news accounts attribute to Dragas -- who has herself not spoken publicly about the matter -- are that Sullivan did not have a "strategic vision" for the future of the university, and so the place was drifting along down the same wasteful path, with rising expenses, rising tuition, and no particular mission focus. It seems that Dragas has a particular interest in online education, although I am not sure why.

I am, myself, programmed to vomit whenever any business executive speaks about "strategic vision." You can tell the degree of real knowledge in any field by the prominence of short-lived fads and buzzwords, which people reflexively substitute for real information. With the possible exception of alternative medicine, no area of American life is more faddish and more ridden with short-lived jargon than business management. Ergo, there is no one in America more ignorant than business managers. I suppose it is possible that Dragas actually has some concrete issues with Sullivan's management, but you certainly can't tell that from the news accounts I have seen. From what I have read, it seems like Dragas wanted somebody with a well-tailored suit and a confident attitude to produce a Strategic Plan with a bold-sounding name (say, "Excellence: a Twenty-Year Vision"), preferably with a slick PowerPoint presentation and lots of madly optimistic budgetary projections.

But, whatever. I, as my readers know, have my own grave doubts about the drifting mission of public universities and their ever-rising costs, and in that sense I empathize with Dragas. She sees costs rising while the average student studies less and learns less, and wants to know what is UVA's plan to turn this around. UVA's President has no plan to turn this around, because UVA's problems are not her fault, nor the fault of the faculty, but a reflection of deep social and cultural changes. One of those changes is a declining respect for learning. Which, incidentally, Helen Dragas seems to personify with her management- based assault on a president who, whatever her other faults, cares about scholarship and teaching.

Universities are very hard ships to steer because they do about a million separate things, from biomedical research to providing a safe environment where 19-year-olds can learn to drink. The modern university's goal is to be all things to all people -- an engine of high-tech economic growth, a citadel of traditional learning, a salon for grooming future leaders, a refuge for unfashionable political ideas, a source, via sports, of entertainment and local pride, and a place to grow up. Each of the university's many constituencies has its own agenda, for which it will fight.

Which brings me to the question of who runs, or tries to run, this multifarious endeavor. UVA's Board of Visitors is entirely appointed by the governor, and every member is a political player who has made lots of campaign contributions. All are businessmen or lawyers. And although the governor gets to appoint the entire board, the state provides only about 10 percent of the university's operating budget (see above). If the governor wants to run the whole show, shouldn't he have to find more of the money?

I don't know what the solution is for American higher education. My personal thought is that we should act to preserve the quality of the enterprise by limiting the quantity, converting half of our colleges into two-year programs and putting more resources into those that remain. The proliferation of highly-paid administrators ought to be another easy target. (Can't one of these businessmen offer some help here? What good are business executives if they can't offer advice on firing people?) But unless Virginia wants to dramatically cut back on the various missions of its university, there is no simple solution to UVA's problems.

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