Over the past two week, a spectacle of disastrous dimensions has unfolded at the University of Virginia, involving the summary dismissal of popular president Teresa Sullivan, behind the scenes machinations, opaque press releases, and a public relations firm rolled into the place to paper over the mess. The only encouraging factor has been the conduct of the faculty, staff, and students, who have presented a united front of outrage. The exceptional coherence of this collective response seems to have had its effect: On Tuesday, in an extraordinary reversal, the Board of Visitors voted unanimously to reinstate Sullivan. Even in the midst of the euphoric and triumphal atmosphere now reigning among Sullivan’s many supporters, it is worth reflecting how all of this could have taken place.
The initial decision of the Board of Visitors to request Sullivan’s resignation remains opaque, but the little that can be gleaned from the emails obtained through The Freedom of Information Act suggests an echo chamber of mutually reinforcing opinions. A false sense of urgency and righteousness combined to fuel a drastic measure.
Why is this more than a local drama? The issues that it brings into focus are those at stake in universities across the country, and arguably in boardrooms of all stripes.
— Who is in charge and why? The fundamental problem underlying the week’s events concerns university governance. The Board of Visitors has the power to hire and fire university presidents, yet it is composed of people drawn almost exclusively from the business world, with little or no direct knowledge of how universities work — their mission and values. Most universities have an equivalent body, and although the composition varies, this turn of events at the University of Virginia should make all of them look closely at the identity and background of these decision makers. The insights, experience, and contacts business people bring are invaluable. But there must be balance, there must be ample representation of true experts in higher education, and there must be humility. Without these components, there is no possibility of a truly open discussion reflecting a variety of views.
— What is the role and future of public universities in tight economic times? Several themes emerge from the email exchanges and public statements of Rector Helen Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kingston: a desire to keep step with Stanford, Harvard and MIT in online education initiatives, but a questioning of the sustainability of financial aid initiatives at levels competing with private institutions (“Access U.V.A.”). Virginia is already a leader in the digital humanities, a strength of which the Board seems unaware while it obsesses about competing on all playing fields at once. The way to do this, in their minds, is through radical “prioritizing,” which in effect would mean sacrificing “obscure” disciplines such as Classics and German so that others (presumably Commerce) may thrive. At stake is no less than the future of the university. Should it be made to serve narrowly conceived goals of job training and preparation for the market place, or should it continue to uphold the aims of educating the young in the broad swath of humanities and sciences, so that they have the fundamental skills to approach a rapidly shifting economic reality? Obviously, I believe the latter, and would argue that even if one’s only goal is to train future workers, this is better achieved by giving them foundational abilities in writing, logic, textual, and quantitative analysis than by giving them skills that could be obsolete by the time they graduate.
At the same time, keeping public universities affordable to students from all income levels must remain a mandate, not an extravagance.
Email exchanges also reveal that the Board sought to remake the University in the image of Darden, its Business School. But the most forward thinking professional schools are actually moving in the opposite direction. Both Harvard and Yale Medical School have recently introduced courses in visual analysis taught on site in local museums and drawing directly on the training of art historians — they are based on the insight that doctors could benefit from sharpened skills in visual observation, and art history hones just such abilities. Similarly, New York University’s Stern School of Business has recently a hired former University of Virginia Professor of Psychology to begin a research unit on the relevance of moral psychology to business.
Events at the University of Virginia reveal the infusion of corporate culture in the university environment: its jargon (“strategic dynamism,” now a local laugh line); its expectation of immediate results and accountability; its belief in executive decision making over consensus building. The problem with a focus on results is that when you are trying to teach students to think, it often takes years for the lesson to sink in, and for them to realize what has happened in the classroom. And the problem with drastic change is that many university teachers have chosen this life by trading money for freedom: this is not a group that likes to be told what to do or who to believe.
This fiasco might have been avoided had the Board members exercised the ethical values and critical thinking skills taught by a liberal arts education: open debate, clarity of expression, logical argument, and awareness of the limits of one’s own knowledge.
No public relations machine can undo what ignorance and arrogance has wrought. Considering why it happened may help prevent further debacles.