Friday, June 22, 2012
Why the mess at UVA matters
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.