In Defense of Academic Values, Part I

Note: The following post was prompted by the firestorm currently taking place at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, the New York Times provides a decent overview. Basically, a faction within the University’s Board of Visitors—led by Rector Helen Dragas—maneuvered privately to oust the well-respected Teresa Sullivan, who was only two years into her term as president. The story is exceedingly complex, and it seems to grow even more so by the hour, but if you’re interested in learning more, there has been fairly extensive coverage in the Charlottesville, Richmond, and Washington media, as well as the Chronicle of Higher Education and various blogs.

When I first received word of Teresa Sullivan’s “decision to resign” on Sunday, June 10, I was—like most alumni—caught entirely off guard. Given that she had served for only two years, my first thought was that Sullivan must have been wrapped up in some kind of scandal. Two weeks later, I almost wish that had been the case.

During those first few days, even as I watched my inbox and Twitter feed blow up, I tried not to become too emotional. If anything, I was hopeful, because I saw Sullivan’s departure as an opportunity—a chance for the University to go out and get Ed Ayers, respected and prize-winning historian, former dean of the University’s College of Arts & Sciences, current president of the University of Richmond, and more or less my academic idol.

My only encounter with Teresa Sullivan came during Reunions last summer, when I shook her hand in the receiving line at the reception she hosted at Carr’s Hill, the president’s house. She was entirely pleasant, but really, who wouldn’t be pleasant in a receiving line? Although my impressions of her were favorable, they certainly don’t constitute evidence of her ability to do the job, and really, all of this is just a long way of saying that I did not receive news of the split as a pro-Sullivan partisan.

Although it quickly became clear that Sullivan’s “resignation” was in fact a termination, I gave the Board of Visitors the benefit of the doubt. If they asked her to step aside, I assumed, they must have had a solid reason. Over the past couple of weeks, though, my opinion has evolved slowly but steadily. Every article I read leaves me more disheartened and angry, and these posts will represent my attempt to express my own thoughts, not only about where the Board of Visitors went wrong, but about what we as educators can learn from their mistakes.

First off, I’ll admit that I am not terribly knowledgeable about the issues that seem to have caused the rift between Sullivan and the Board. Personally, I’m skeptical of online education, but I also recognize that—in some form—it will likely play an increasingly important role. And I’m willing to admit that there’s probably some value in it, particularly if you’re trying to communicate basic factual information. Either way, I have much more to learn before I can make a definitive judgment there. I also acknowledge that while my own financial literacy probably leaves something to be desired, budgets do matter. To ignore the financial stresses that the University (or any educational institution) faces does no good.

Reports that the Board ordered Sullivan to cut the Classics and German departments are troubling, to be sure, but let’s be honest: in the midst of a general economic downturn, shrinking state support, and strong pressures to resist further tuition increases, the bottom line does become a crucial concern. The University’s endowment is healthy, but if they want to keep it healthy, they can’t afford to draw on it too much or indefinitely simply to keep struggling programs afloat. Sometimes, unfortunate though it may be, cuts do have to be made. I get that. So I’m not even saying that the Board of Visitors is necessarily wrong in its policy prescriptions.

(It’s worth noting, of course, that the faculty of the University has spoken against those prescriptions with near unanimity over the past two weeks, a fact that should impress teachers at all levels. As they well know, getting a large group of educators to agree on something—especially educators who have tenure and don’t have to worry much about what their co-workers think of them—is a true feat.)

No, what bothers me most about the Board’s approach is that it exhibits a general disrespect for—or perhaps a willful ignorance of—academic values. This concept, as I see it, takes two basic forms, the first of which is a willingness to share information and debate issues in an open forum. Consistently over the past two weeks, the Board has made its decisions behind closed doors. As the governing body for a public institution, this is unacceptable. The Board also made the conscious choice to communicate as little as possible with the University’s core constituencies—almost as if faculty, staff, students, and alumni don’t matter. Almost as if those people could have nothing of value to add to the discussion (assuming there was an honest and open discussion). This leads me to my next point.

The second way that basic academic values manifest themselves is in an acknowledgement of the limits of one’s own expertise. In academia, historians don’t tell chemists how to run their experiments. Mathematicians don’t analyze literature. Specialization has its downsides, to be sure, but expertise is revered and respected because it is earned.

By now, I probably don’t need to point out that the members of the Board are not academics. They are, by and large, business executives who are probably accustomed to issuing directives without being questioned.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to stereotype broadly about businesspeople and I don’t mean to suggest that they have no place in universities. Many businesspeople—including some on the Board, I would imagine—are highly intelligent, thoughtful, and caring individuals. And institutions of higher education—especially public ones—should not be entirely self-governing. Lastly, truth be told, businesspeople have something valuable to offer to educational institutions, because most professors of English or sociology or physics are ill-equipped to manage the finances of such large institutions. If we want the Board to recognize the limits of its expertise, we have to be willing to recognize the limits of our own.

So again, businesspeople are not to blame here. The problem is instead an organizational one, as the institutional structures in which corporate executives operate tend to be established with the goal of efficiency or profit in mind. They tend not to be established with the goal of promoting dissent, something that is at the very heart of any academic endeavor.

To reject dissent as healthy and productive is to deny the value of scholarship itself. Furthermore, to pretend that one’s knowledge is all-encompassing—that your decisions don’t stand to benefit from the input of experts in a variety of fields—is to invalidate the life’s work of the many outstanding employees with whom you are charged with a fiduciary responsibility.

In sum, the problem is not that businesspeople sit on the Board, but rather that they fail to recognize that a university is not just another business. To govern in accordance with academic values, they should operate transparently, focusing their attention on financial or legal matters and leaving questions of educational policy to the educators. Or, barring that, they should work to promote energetic discourse in the decision-making process rather than working to conceal it from public view.

I’m afraid that the way they have proceeded, though, is indicative of a “creeping corporatism” in education as well as an increasing dependence on high-dollar, strings-attached “philanthropy.” (I place the term in quotation marks because to me, philanthropy suggests a certain selflessness—a love of people or of a cause greater than oneself. To attach strings is to move in precisely the opposite direction.) As state funding declines, universities become more and more dependent on donations, and in the current economic climate, they run the risk of becoming beholden to their wealthiest patrons.

It’s one thing for a donor to use his “power of the purse” to effect a change in who calls the plays on Saturdays in the fall. I don’t agree with that on a philosophical level, but I’m also not going to stomp my feet about it for two reasons: 1) because it affects a relatively limited number of students, and 2) because it is not central to the institution’s mission. Drastically changing the direction of the football program does not risk jeopardizing the institution’s standing as a whole. But it’s another thing entirely to use one’s checkbook to reshape a public institution’s educational philosophy.

Let’s be clear: we don’t yet know what the future holds for the University. It is conceivable—if barely—that the long-term results from this kerfuffle could be positive. But since we can’t predict the future, let’s at least examine the consequences we have seen thus far: extraordinarily negative publicity, a tarnishing of the University’s proud reputation, threats of withheld gifts from donors (except for, presumably, our very own billionaire hedge fund managing alumnus), the potential loss of applications and matriculations (both undergraduate and graduate), faculty resignations and the concomitant difficulty in recruiting strong replacements, as well as a precipitous decline in employee morale. Beyond this, the seeds have been planted for a fracturing of the community as a whole, particularly as the debate veers toward the political/ideological. I hesitate to call these short-term results because each has the potential to affect the University for years to come.

On top of this, let’s not forget that the Board likely still needs to hire a new president, a search that promises to be much more challenging than the last. I suspect that visionary leaders will shy away from working for an oversight committee that has shown such interest in micromanagement, which leads me to believe that the primary qualification for the next hire will likely be a willingness to say, “Yes.”

All of this at an institution where Thomas Jefferson’s words are inscribed over doors as omnipresent entreaties: “Here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” Perhaps Teresa Sullivan did err in her approach to managing the affairs of the University. I have seen no clear evidence of this, but I welcome it if it’s out there. At the same time, I wish that the Board had had the intellectual courage to tolerate that error—temporarily, at least—and combat it with reason rather than a reliance on sheer authority.

A willingness to engage all interested constituencies and solicit ideas for setting the University’s course might have produced a stronger, if less efficient, solution. Once that process was complete, assessing Sullivan on her ability to achieve those goals would have made sense, recognizing, of course, that real, lasting change takes time.

Alas, it was not to be.

As an independent school educator, the past two weeks have raised all sorts of questions for me about what school good governance looks like, regardless of level. After all, K-12 independent schools tend to be governed and managed more like small colleges and universities, typically with a number of deans reporting to a president or head of school, who reports, in turn, to a board.

I’ll consider this in more depth in my next post, but the bottom line, I think, is that the educational mission of the institution must always remain at the fore. Losing sight of academic values makes it possible for an educational institution—even one as august as the University of Virginia—to become just another business venture. And I now know that we must be ever vigilant, given just how quickly such a shift can apparently happen.

May the Board of Visitors act in defense of academic values this afternoon.

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