A number of years ago I was staffing a statewide committee on teacher education reform when a businessman joined the group. The other members explained the issues to him and mentioned how hard reform was going to be. He looked at them in disbelief and said, “What's the problem? We'll just give them their marching orders!”
In this editorial I depart from my usual practice of talking about the articles in the issue in order to address a concern that's weighing heavily on my mind. Yesterday there was a rally on the Lawn of Thomas Jefferson's “Academical Village” (notice the bucolic imagery) at the University of Virginia to protest the sudden firing of Teresa Sullivan as president. For those of you who didn't follow the story, a small group of UVA board members decided in secret to force the resignation of Sullivan and refused to explain with any specificity their reasons for terminating a fledgling presidency that seemed to those of us on the grounds to be going very well.
By the time you read this, that firing will be old news that's been thoroughly chewed over, but it raised a number of issues that are worth discussing: how colleges and universities are governed, the pace of change, the processes by which it is made, and the kinds of changes institutions need to make in order to remain viable and yet fulfill their mission to conserve as well as innovate.
In US universities and colleges, legal authority regarding institutional policy and the hiring and firing of presidents rests with the board of trustees (or visitors, in Virginia's case). At their best, trustees act as the academic enterprise's “dearest friends and severest critics.” Many trustees serve that function admirably—they support their institutions fully, staying out of its day-to-day functioning but bringing their knowledge of the larger environment to bear when they provide policy direction.
But it's a tricky business. People from business dominate the Virginia board, which is considerably less diverse than those of other respected institutions. Its composition reflects the confluence of power and money that we are seeing everywhere, not just in politics. Boards of visitors in Virginia are appointed by the governor; a seat on the UVA board is often considered the plum reserved for those who have been most generous to that governor.
And there is a chasm between the cultures of business and the academy that became obvious in the Virginia putsch. Inhabitants of the two worlds are to some degree aliens to each other: They make decisions differently, speak a different language, and have a different sense of time. This chasm, like the two sides of the aisle in Congress, can only be bridged by the exercise of civility and mutual respect.
That such civility has disappeared from government will come as no surprise to anyone who follows politics. But it was startling to see how little it was observed within “Mr. Jefferson's university” (courtesy has traditionally been an important value in Virginia). Corporate leaders are more likely than academic ones to give “marching orders” and to hire and fire with, in the worst instances, no explanations expected or given.
And in the inept handling of Sullivan's forced resignation, corporate culture unalloyed by civility or respect was fully on display—most obviously in the speed of the decision to get rid of her, the secrecy of the proceedings, the blindsiding of both her and the campus, the refusal to explain the decision, the language of the resignation “agreement,” the misrepresentations that were used to justify the decision, and so on. One small but appalling detail: Although her duties weren't to end until mid-August, Sullivan was ordered to vacate the presidential mansion by the end of July.
The most touching sign at the demonstration, I thought, was the one that said “We Don't Treat People This Way.” We have all seen cruelty, unfairness, and politics within universities, certainly. But while in no environment, corporate or academic, is it smart to treat people this way, that is especially true in the academic world. One message that comes through in all the articles published in this magazine is that candor, openness, and involvement are essential in getting faculty and staff to accept—indeed, to enact—institutional change.
That is because we are a professional community, and civic and business authorities have historically accepted the right of professionals to govern themselves. But increasingly, the assumptions are that, one, businesses go under if they aren't successful (questionable, given everything from favorable tax treatment to being “too big to fail”) and two, successful business leaders must therefore know how to achieve success even in businesses they know nothing about. Business decision-making at its worst was on display in this affair.
Clearly the rector's and the president's different sense of time was also at play here. In her email to the university community, Rector Helen Dragas laid it out: “The Board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation.” In internal emails, the term invoked is “strategic visioning”—responding rapidly to changes in the external environment by adapting the strategic plan on the fly, as best I can make out.
And sure enough, in her remarks to the board, Sullivan described herself as an “incrementalist”: “Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university,” she said. “Sustained change with buy-in does work.” Compared to the traditional decision-making style of the academy, once described by C.S. Lewis nostalgically as endless debate at boundless leisure, Sullivan moved at the speed of sound. But by corporate standards, evidently, she was a tortoise.
So is there a way forward?
Universities need trustees who understand and appreciate, in Sullivan's words, “how … change should occur and at what pace” in the academy. But we too need to understand something: that the long-standing agreement to allow communities of professionals to govern themselves was good as long as we provided essential services at an affordable cost to the public.
The erosion of that latitude for both doctors and academics has come, I would suggest, as our services, increasingly seen as essential (according to a recent Carnegie poll, three out of four Americans view higher education as a “right”), move out of reach for lower- and middle-income citizens. Never mind that the increases have to some degree filled holes created by the withdrawal of state support: the buck literally stops here.
We have to do things more effectively and efficiently if we are to serve our public mission—including using revolutionary technologies to decrease costs and increase the kinds of learning that are appropriate to the challenges that our graduates will face. And we have move faster than we are used to, given the financial hole we're in and the accelerated pace of change in the larger world.
The University of Virginia won't go under tomorrow if it doesn't embrace online education, but it does risk becoming an even more gated community if it ignores how large numbers of people are now acquiring learning. Time and technology wait for no person, and they are both, indeed, profoundly disruptive.
Part of the job of self-examination is to consider the currency that drives our economy: prestige. The rector was trading in that currency—our currency. Yes, according to a June 17 Washington Post article by Daniel de Vise, there was talk in the Dragas group about saving money by dropping “obscure” programs in German and classics. But this was not in order to make education more affordable (indeed, the email exchange within the group included an article about Wesleyan's elimination of need-blind admissions)—it was instead to free up enough to hire “star” faculty and to rise in the rankings that we academics profess to despise but in fact court assiduously. Dragas's emails reveal a strong interest in moving the university into online education, not to increase access to learning but instead to join the big-boy club made up of Harvard, Stanford, and MIT (Dragas, in an email to her vice-rector: “Online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions”).
Can we prioritize teaching and learning over institutional aspiration? And in doing so, can we model, as well as inculcate future board members with, the humane values that were so lacking in this sorry spectacle?
Can we stop racing after grants and publications (the coin by which prestige is purchased, which we assume will lead in turn to more coin) and attend instead to the students who come knocking at our office doors, as well as honoring and promoting our colleagues who do so? Will there be prestige and money associated with that work? If not, how can we still protect and serve students and learning?
While there is much blame to be laid at the feet of the heavy-handed business leaders who forced Sullivan's resignation, they have provided us with an opportunity for us to coin another currency. One place to start is with a reaffirmation, through our behavior, of the intrinsic value of the “learned sciences” and the public purposes of higher education. As Mr. Jefferson himself put it:
Some good men, and even of respectable information, consider the learned sciences as useless acquirements; some think that they do not better the condition of man; and others that education, like private and individual concerns, should be left to private individual effort; not reflecting that an establishment embracing all the sciences which may be useful and even necessary in the various vocations of life, with the buildings and apparatus belonging to each, are far beyond the reach of individual means, and must either derive existence from public patronage, or not exist at all.
This is change we can believe in.
On June 26, 2012, the University of Virginia's board of visitors voted unanimously to reinstate President Teresa Sullivan. Several days later, Governor Robert McDonnell reappointed Helen Dragas to UVA's Board of Visitors.