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The UVA Controversy Threatens its Reputation

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The hotly protested firing of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan should draw more attention to the cost crisis in higher education—a national crisis that has begun to put academic officials under great pressure in their long-privileged environments. But even in that more important debate, anger based on the manner in which the president was ousted, and even on her obvious popularity, are both relevant and justified.

Widespread reform at a proud elite university can’t happen without lots of cooperation. It is difficult even at a school that’s average, and UVA constituencies know theirs isn’t average. Higher education is “delivered” or “produced” not by employees in the usual sense, but by people who generally, due to tenure, can’t be fired. This simple fact suggests that if the institution’s core rejects tough new measures, or despises those who most authoritatively push them, or fights these more energetically because they’re linked to an unpopular dismissal and to an almost inevitably controversial new president, such reforms will eventually lose. Indeed, they may never happen.

Among the few dissenting voices here is Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Last winter, the nationwide reform group published a report criticizing the extensive public university system from which Virginians and many out-of-staters benefit. As Neal stresses in a statement defending Sullivan’s firing, the nationwide picture in higher education now forbids complacency. “Student debt exceeds credit card debt. Tuition is increasing at a faster rate than even health care. Studies show more than a third of students learn virtually nothing in four years of college.”

Neal also criticizes academic bureaucrats for “reflexively asserting that quality requires more money,” for a tendency to insist that “enough is never enough.” UVA, specifically, has both “spiraling tuition increases” and too much “administrative bloat.” After the high-profile Sullivan controversy, Neal urges, we should hope for a trend toward more “engaged and courageous trustees” nationwide—trustees like those at UVA. Whatever happens in this case, the general point is well-taken. But real engagement and real courage seem inconsistent with what’s happened in the past few weeks.

Sullivan, a sociologist who continued to research actively in her field and thus earned added respect among the professoriate even as her administrative career flourished, arrived in Charlottesville at the beginning of 2010-2011. She had her executive team in place only for the past school year—probably not enough time to make a great difference at a sizeable school. And her deep experience in academic governance suggests she might have been able to make such a difference. Sullivan’s previous job was provost at the University of Michigan. Before that, she was chief academic officer in the University of Texas system.

On May 3, just a month before she was booted from the UVA presidency, she sent a memo to Rector and Board of Visitors chairman Helen Dragas—a Tidewater-based home developer, to whom the language of business is second nature—outlining the major issues the school faces. Sullivan also briefly suggested some remedies, none of them easy but none of them strange.
Did any of these play a role in the firing? No one seems to know. It’s been reported that Sullivan was reluctant to move the school extensively into online learning, or to pull the trigger on what some would call economically unjustified departments or programs, possible examples being Classics(!) and German. But it is clear from the memo that Sullivan wasn’t complacent. Indeed, she warned that the academic reputation of UVA is actually higher, in some cases, than is quite justified. She also suggested that too much money, meaning too much faculty time, goes to introductory rather than higher-level teaching, which a selective and highly-ranked university is mostly about. Surely these points qualify as hard-headed analysis.

In contrast, there is such a thing as fuzzy thinking even from champion businesspeople. Major UVA donor Paul Tudor Jones II, a hedge-fund billionaire who sides with Dragas, didn’t help her case with his recent op-ed in the Charlottesville Daily Progress. “The spirit of Thomas Jefferson … is cheering this bold action by the Board of Visitors,” he argued. “Jefferson was a change agent, a man of action and a perfectionist. To paraphrase him, it is time for a revolution.”

These ignore the UVA founder’s more scholarly personality, his well-known opposition to the “big business” advocates of his time, and his notorious ineptitude with his troubled finances—ineptitude explained, perhaps, by his much greater concern with public life and with what we call “lifelong learning.” Jones’s description of Jefferson as a man likely to applaud ill-explained dictates on behalf of a better bottom line is precisely the wrong way to reach critics more attuned to history,  as many  university-connected people like to think of themselves . Jefferson could be decisive, but he wasn’t a model of decisiveness. He is more appropriately a reminder of the intellectual life the UVAs of the world are supposed to represent—and of openness in governmental affairs.

Dragas thought immediate action was required to install a president who would promptly make dynamic “change” rather than just consider it, prepare for it, and acknowledge its necessity. But leaders who insist on bold, immediate change are obligated to say clearly what must happen and why, enabling those affected to contribute their perspectives—and defend their interests.
Otherwise, such leaders sound like dictators, not just to the truly complacent but also to people who might otherwise listen, meaning potential allies. As such, reformist board members become targets for political opposition. Anyone who has followed this story even casually knows how broad and intense that opposition is at Mr. Jefferson’s “academical village.”

As Sullivan said Monday in a statement to the Board of Trustees, she is indeed an incrementalist. But, she suggested, effective academic leaders must be that way. “Sweeping action may be gratifying and may create the aura of strong leadership, but its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear.” Sullivan added that collaboration with a school’s other officials, and with faculty representatives, produces the most constructive and “long lasting” change. In the wrong hands, of course, these arguments could be a mere excuse for stifling change. But they are also quite true.

The board, then, may have endangered its unspecified agenda. A restless little junto, as Jefferson might have called it, of high-level donors isn’t enough. Dragas and company failed either to prepare or to couple their decision with a strong, publicly stated rationale. They offered only strong language, a poor substitute that invites lasting resentment from people, and effective resentment from those opponents who can easily get away with it. They needed to win friends and influence people, and they haven’t—although to her credit Dragas, at Monday’s meeting to consider naming an interim president, did admit that the situation was handled badly, that the university “deserved better.”

The decision to fire Sullivan was made by just three members of the board’s six-member executive committee—itself a minority of the sixteen-member board. Two executive members were unable to attend—one for medical reasons, one because he was overseas. Another did not attend for reasons that haven’t been reported. Questions have also been raised about whether the meeting violated state law because it came just hours, not three days, after a public notice was put out. Although the state attorney general’s office told Dragas the meeting was permitted, the law defines the emergency situation that would justify waiving the three-day notice requirement as “an unforeseen circumstance” that makes “immediate action” necessary.

Dragas and her colleagues still haven’t explained what the emergency was. They should hold a press conference in which all questions can be asked publicly, even if not all are answered. It seems that the chairman consulted individually over the last several months with others on the board—and thought she had near-unanimous agreement to dump Sullivan. The president had also been told, in an evaluation some months ago, that her performance was good but not great. But those points don’t add up to justification. Boards are supposed to meet and discuss.

UVA’ s immediate past president John Casteen—no detached egghead, but an impressive fundraiser during his long incumbency—is right to suggest that Dragas and her allies violated the Commonwealth of Virginia’s open-government culture, or at least its open-government self-image. Due to these “institutional integrity” questions, he says, there is now a “pretty serious” threat to the school’s reputation. A letter from department chairs and program directors protesting the firing correctly calls the three board members’ decision “abrupt” and “opaque.” The statement goes on to predict this “will deeply threaten the way UVA is perceived by prospective as well as current faculty, students, and donors.” Early evidence suggests at least some threat, whether deep or not.

And it isn’t just professors and UVA insiders who are troubled. The conservative former governor Jim Gilmore has been quoted as saying, in the context of the Sullivan crisis, that the board has “a duty to be more transparent.” More cautiously, Governor Bob McDonnell has urged “dialogue” between the board and faculty. One wonders whether that’s possible with the board’s current membership, or with a faculty as rightly offended as it is.

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