Lessons from UV for UW

“What Terry Sullivan’s Reinstatement at U. Va Really Tells Us about the Future of Higher Ed


Does the reappointment of University of Virginia’s president mark a triumph over corporate interests? Or is it more proof that public universities are headed for demise?” By Aaron Bady

Though it is tempting to feel that Sullivan’s reinstatement was a triumph over corporate interests, in fact, no such thing is true. Rather, Sullivan’s return to the presidency has only served to reestablish the fact that the governing boards of “public” universities like U.Va are utterly dominated by corporate interests — and, in some ways, uniquely vulnerable to corporate manipulation and power plays of the sort that just took place.


It’s a depressing measure of how far the public university in the US has fallen, in fact, that fully privatizing them might actually be one way to re-focus them on their public mission of education and research. Private universities are not actually “private” in the sense of being run for profit, after all; unlike explicitly for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix, “private” universities are 501c(3) non-profits, and they tend to act like it.

If you look at the governing boards of private universities like Harvard or Swarthmore, for example, you’ll find that along with bankers and developers, there is also critical mass of alumni, public servants and academics, and that the board’s fundamental agenda tends to be maintaining continuity of mission and purpose — to doing, at most, a better version of what they’ve always done. The result is that while “private” universities in the US tend to be run by people who actually believe in the non-profit mission of their institutions, the governing boards of our “public” institutions are places where the wisdom of running the university “like a business” has long gone unquestioned.

It’s important to observe that Terry Sullivan’s tenure at U.Va has always been, in every sense, utterly compatible with that last bit of wisdom. As my friend ReclaimUC pointed out almost immediately (in two important pieces on “The Structural Logic of Administration” and “The Invisibility of Corporatization“), Sullivan’s signature accomplishment at U.Va so far – other than raising tuition by 20% in two years – has been establishing a budgeting model called “responsibility center management” (RCM), which essentially allows individual academic units to manage their own budget processes (and keep any revenues they generate). As David Kirp describes in his book Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education:

Proponents [of RCM] contend that a university should be run like a firm, in which every academic unit carries its weight financially. In business terms, that means each unit is expected to be a profit center. Whether it’s the college of arts and sciences, the dental school, or the business school, the costs — which include salaries, space, and the like — cannot exceed the revenues, whether raised through tuition, contracts, grants, or gifts. A school that runs a surplus gets to keep it, while a school with a deficit has to pay it back. (pp. 115)

For Kirp, RCM represents precisely the kind of corporatization that Sullivan has been (erroneously) credited with rejecting:

The debate over the wisdom of running a university according to the principles of the corporate profit center is in essence a contest of worldviews. It is an argument between those who believe that the citizens of a university are members of a company whose chief mission is to maximize dollar profits and those committed to the idea of the university as a community in which “gift relationships” are the norm. (pp. 116)



Paul K. Haeder


SEIU Local 925

1914 N 34th St, Ste. 100

Seattle, WA 98103

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