Friday, June 22, 2012

Why the mess at UVA matters

Those of you who are not in Charlottesville but who are faithful readers of this blog may be wondering what the controversy over the firing of Teresa Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia has to do with you. I have written on nothing else but that for the past ten days on this blog, and that is partly a reflection of the fact that St. Paul's Memorial Church, where I am rector, is the parish church to UVA.

But let me suggest that this controversy is really more than about a single university or a single president. It is about critical issues facing public higher education and its mission for public good and the education of the middle class.

I have a personal stake in this: I am the beneficiary of low-cost public higher education through the University of California system, as were my parents, my sister, and all of my aunts and two of my three uncles (the one uncle who went to Stanford being the exception).

The name of this four-year-old blog, Fiat Lux -- Let there be Light -- is the same as the motto and mission statement of the University of California. That is no accident.

There are tremendous pressures on public higher education, from declining state support and rising tuition, to the very structure of universities and how education is delivered in our diverse and complex world. The financial pressures are pushing to the forefront the mission of public higher education: Is it for the equipping of a thinking citizenry, or is it for job training? Or both? How to make that balance and pay the bills? Is higher education for everyone who qualifies, or is it only for the elites? These issues have been with us for a very long time and are only getting more difficult for educators, governing boards and political leaders.

There is a good commentary this morning on this this topic by Marie Griffith, a professor of religious studies at Harvard who earned her undergraduate degree in that subject at UVA. She points out the value of subjects like religious studies in a broad education, yet it is liberal arts that are the most in danger of being on the chopping block. UVA's religious studies program is among the most  distinguished in the country, but it is will never generate enormous alumni or corporate donations like those produced by the alumni of the Darden business school or the law school. You can read her commentary HERE.

Helen Dragas, the chair ("Rector") of the board of trustees ("Visitors") for the University of Virginia, who is now roundly disparaged for her inept machinations in the firing of President Sullivan, on Thursday issued her third statement defending her board's actions. Although it is a self-serving apology, she nonetheless identifies ten crucial issues that confront UVA and public higher education -- issues that must be engaged by all of us. You can read her statement HERE.

I must wonder what would have happened if instead of panicking and firing their president of only two years, Dragas and her board had instead engaged the University community in a dialogue about these issues. She and the board could have invited some very smart people -- who care at least as much as she does -- into a process of developing the strategic plan that she says is sorely lacking. They are at her doorstep.

To have pinned all of that onto a president was to not only misunderstand the role of university presidents, but to dismiss the tremendous intellectual resources at the doorstep of the board. Unfortunately, the trust that is required for that dialogue between the board and the university it governs is now destroyed, and that is a setback in confronting with the issues that Dragas identifies. It is also a cautionary tale to other governing boards across the country.

Let me also add this: This issue is not about partisan politics, as much as commentators from the Left and Right have tried to make it so. The UVA governing board is equally split between appointees of Republican and Democratic governors, and Dragas was appointed by Tim Kaine, who is now the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate. Nor is this controversy only about big donor to the University and campaign donors who get appointed to governing boards (though that certainly must be examined). The issue that must be confronted is the future of higher education itself, and that should matter to all of us. Perhaps it is only fitting that this firestorm erupted at the first public university to be founded. It was a brave, noble and innovative experiment that Thomas Jefferson came up with, and it still is.

We are told that the UVA Board of Visitors will meet Tuesday, and that there may be enough votes to reinstate Sullivan as president. That is right and fair, and I would urge the board to do so.

But no one should be under the mistaken notion that the issues confronting public higher education will go away. Perhaps this sorry episode will galvanize those who care the most into saving public higher education for the purpose it was established by Jefferson -- to create an informed and enlightened citizenry.

7 comments:

Kimberlee said...

Thank you for your eloquence on this matter. :)

Kimberlee said...

Thank you for your eloquence on this pivotal matter. :)

Lewis Maldonado said...

Thank you for your commentary, Jim. I very much agree that what is happening at UVA is really important for the future of higher education, just as, in a somewhat different context, what happened in Wisconsin a year ago was very important (albeit not clear at the moment where it will lead) for the future of labor relations.

There are very few people in American history who have given as much thought to the importance of education as Thomas Jefferson. I like to think that if Jefferson were here today, he would be demanding President Sullivan's reinstatement.

Belinda said...

excellent.
measured, intelligent and informed.
yes, thank you for speaking out on this matter.

Peter said...

Thanks, Jim, for a succinct summary of events and issues. However I must disagree that "This issue is not about partisan politics.....The UVA governing board is equally split between appointees of Republican and Democratic governors" As Ms Griffith notes in her interesting article, "Why is this story worth addressing in our journal? Because these events shed a searing light on the political pressures facing state universities across the United States" "Searing!" The trend, nay, press, for privatization, for deciding the role of education [classical vs practical] and which class will be educated has begun and pretty clearly draws a line between competing POV. This is the same effort at privatization seen in military support, the penal "business" and the destabilization of public workers and unions with distinct political implications

Dr. Candace Hull Taylor said...

As someone in the trenches of higher ed--Hear! Hear!

Jonathan Brown said...

Jim- Thanks for these comments. I have watched from California with interest. Although I spent a career working with independent colleges I fully appreciate the importance of public institutions. I think there is more here than just the decline of funding for public universities. And while I disagree with the way that the majority on the Board of Visitors handled both dealing with the President and the broader issue, I think all of higher education faces some significant issues that are more than funding. Think for a moment about issues like the juxtaposition of Robert Samuelson and Peter Theil - both (with slightly different logic) argue that we should cut back on the number of people who attend college. From the WP and the NYT one gets an impression of a couple of things. First, neither the President nor the Board seems prepared to have a serious engagement on the long term issues of the structure and delivery of higher education at Virginia or indeed in the broader context of American policy. We should be thinking carefully about who will be served and who will pay and how it will be delivered. (exactly by the way what the Carnegie Commission did in the early 1970s) I hope that the answer is to continue the American tradition of having many points of entry for people at various times in their lives. I spent a good deal of my career working in behalf of liberal arts colleges. My own undergraduate education was in IR because I wanted the breadth that the major offered. I probably did not work out of the country until the last 20 years of my career but the experiences were valuable none-the-less. I also hope that the burden of federal policy does not begin to overwhelm the real diversity in institutions. There is some creative thinking going on in many venues about the questions I described above. I think the way the VIsitors chose to address the larger issue (which I believe is a lot more than a funding issue) was clumsy at best. Universities should be communities of advanced learning - they should be prepared to engage in civil discourse. I salute your comments "I must wonder what would have happened if instead of panicking and firing their president of only two years, Dragas and her board had instead engaged the University community in a dialogue about these issues. She and the board could have invited some very smart people -- who care at least as much as she does -- into a process of developing the strategic plan that she says is sorely lacking. They are at her doorstep.

To have pinned all of that onto a president was to not only misunderstand the role of university presidents, but to dismiss the tremendous intellectual resources at the doorstep of the board. Unfortunately, the trust that is required for that dialogue between the board and the university it governs is now destroyed, and that is a setback in confronting with the issues that Dragas identifies. It is also a cautionary tale to other governing boards across the country." They are right on point. But I also believe that higher education (Me included) has been slow to recognize the shifts in both public (financial and other types of) support and the tectonic shifts in technology which offer some opportunities that were not even possible 5 years ago.