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Chaos at Jefferson’s University

Few Americans understand the significance of the University of Virginia to world history.  U Va was Thomas Jefferson’s proudest creation, the world’s first PUBLIC university.  Moreover, in the tradition of Jefferson, U Va was created as place where ordinary citizens could participate in the wonderful educational opportunities offered by the academic and professional community we call a “faculty.”  U Va was the seed that led not only to the broad access qualified Americans have had (via scholarships) to the elite private schools but to the much broader creation of elite public universities .. a tradition that includes our own UW.

Two centuries later, Jefferson’s ideals are being threatened at the U Va itself  by efforts to ” treat Jefferson’s university as a businesses.”  Advocates of this direction come from both the right and the left.  Their movement proposes to replace academic goals with “real world goals” as defined by such dubious communities as politicians and businessmen.

The problem, as I see it , is that good management of businesses, at least in terms of long term strategies such as the choice of product wanted and needed by consumers, is often inimical to the practical need of businesses to secure short term profits.  Anyone who doubts this need only to look at the demise of Bell Labs once AT&T lost is quasi governmental status or the world wide dissolution of research institutions founded as non profit adjuncts of big pharma.

As an academic I seriously question the ability of any businessman to predict the societal or career value of such “dubious” disciplines as Shakespeare, Philosophy, Archeology, Formal Logic, Russina Literature, Music Composition, Architecture, …

As a citizen and tax payer, I fear that this trend will mean that the truly ambitious student MUST get into Stanford because Cal or UW will not be able to offer the academic diversity envisaged by Thomas Jefferson.

Here is an excellent summary of waht is happening at U Va …

Peter Wood, president, National Association of Scholars

Teresa Sullivan’s forced resignation from the presidency of the University of Virginia is, at the moment, murky. Helen Dragas, rector of the UVa Board of Visitors, has offered rather opaque reasons for the dismissal. At a meeting with vice presidents and deans, Dragas cited three reasons, as paraphrased by The Chronicle:

  • the need for a leader who would be open to changes in curriculum-delivery methods, including online learning;
  • the need to make difficult decisions about reallocating financial resources across the university;
  • a pressing need to hire faculty in the wake of an anticipated wave of retirements.

Although some observers have postulated ulterior motives, Dragas’s explanation should probably be taken at close to face value. It speaks, as she herself put it, to a “philosophical difference of opinion” about how a university—or at least that particular university—should be run.

Sullivan’s firing might best be seen as a foreshock of the collapsing higher-education bubble. The rightful role of a governing board is to foresee major shifts in the conditions that their institutions face. I cannot speak to how well Dragas or other members of the UVa board have anticipated the future, but their attempts to anticipate are legitimate, as is their readiness to confer with strategic business minds who have anticipated deep changes in the economy.

Sullivan may well have been doing excellent work as UVa’s president, but even her strongest defenders depict her as committed to maintaining the university in something as close as possible to its current form. That’s an ideal I admire. But that doesn’t mean that the Board of Visitors acted inappropriately. Because Dragas sometimes speaks in the platitudinous and imprecise language of managementese, more finely spoken members of the faculty tend to dismiss her as a barbarian from the land of unfettered capitalism who does not understand what higher education is all about.

Such condescension may be misplaced. The question is: How real are the perils that UVa and other high-end state universities face? On that the jury is still out, but there is surely a strong case that the perils are great, and that the UVa board acted within its legitimate role to replace the chief executive with someone more committed to its priorities.


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