The Silver Lining in the Ouster of UVA President Teresa Sullivan

The Silver Lining in the Ouster of UVA President Teresa Sullivan

The Silver Lining in the Ouster of UVA President Teresa Sullivan It always helps to know your enemy, and boy, do we know our enemy now.

The recent ouster of Teresa Sullivan, a mini-coup d’etat that had enough court intrigue to give Hilary Mantel’s new novel, Bring Up the Bodies, a run for its money, maybe the best thing that’s happened in higher education in a long time.

Why? Because her summary dismissal by the Board of Visitors, spear-headed by real estate developer Helen Dragas, the Board’s Rector, and its Vice-Rector, Mark Kington (the head of a capital management firm who sits with Dragas on the BOD of the energy company, Dominion) makes it absolutely clear what is at stake in the corporatization of higher education: Goodbye shared governance, hello strategic dynamism.

There’s a painful irony in all of this, of course: The same folks who championed the combination of tax kickbacks to the wealthy, deregulation, and insider trading that helped shatter the economy and hobble the budgets of colleges and universities are now increasingly running them.

What these people like to call “strategic dynamism” produced binge profits, sure. But it ended up shredding the economy, and now it’s coming to a college or university near you. (If you haven’t seen The Chronicle of Higher Education piece on the idea of “strategic dynamism” and the role it played in Sullivan’s firing, you ought to check it out.)

Boards like UVAs, increasingly made up of hedge fund operators, mortgage lenders, developers, and investment firm CEOs, are trained to put fast-paced change, short-term economic gain, and dramatic changes in asset allocation and in personnel ahead of long term,

Methodical academic planning, subordinating even the pretense of shared governance to the economic bottom line. It represents a culture of governance alien to the one we’re used to in higher education. As Kris Olds points out in a superb Inside Higher Education piece on UVAs Board, this is “a patently unbalanced and inward-oriented board, drawing from a very narrow segment of society,” one prone to “group thinks.”

You remember shared governance, right? In the old days, when the business of education was education and not a business, the academic mission of the university — its courses, curricula, and programs — could safely be delegated to the people who have the expertise: the faculty. So could the process of promotion and tenure.

Now, however, the curriculum has become a product, the faculty are employees (increasingly limited to adjunct or part-time status), and the student’s consumers. In the process, academic issues have been transformed into economic issues, and so the faculty can no longer be trusted with them.

The value — and thus the viability — of courses, programs, and departments can no longer be separated from the maximization of revenue flows, or from the cant of productivity and quantifiable learning outcomes. Strategic dynamism is fast becoming the new bottom line, and all it wants to know is how departments and their faculties can perform in the context of short-term, wildly fluctuating financial exigencies.

Why allow faculty a governance role in the curriculum when faculty want to protect the viability of traditional academic programs that supposedly put a drag on the university’s finances and are irrelevant to the vocational needs of their students? Shared governance just looks absurd to people like Dragas and Kington. They’re CEOs, developers, and investment fund executives. Whoever heard of shared governance in their world?

And finally, what happens to the humanities under such a regime? They shrink into irrelevancy and their departments close. It’s telling that the only concrete reason we’ve gotten for Sullivan’s ouster is that she apparently refused to cut the departments of German and Classics. It’s not hard to imagine that this is where the deeper story lies.

According to an article in The Washington Post, “Leaders of the university’s governing board ousted Sullivan last week largely because of her unwillingness to consider dramatic program cuts in the face of dwindling resources and for her perceived reluctance to approach the school with the bottom-line mentality of a corporate chief executive.” Surely if the recent past is any indicator, many of these cuts would have come from the humanities and the liberal arts. Indeed, the statement she issued yesterday suggests this is the case. You can read it here.

To its credit, the AAUP saw this coming way back in 1966. Consider this introductory passage from the AAUP Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities:

“[T]he academic institution, public or private, often has become less autonomous; buildings, research, and student tuition are supported by funds over which the college or university exercises a diminishing control. Legislative and executive governmental authorities, at all levels, play a part in the making of important decisions in academic policy. If these voices and forces are to be successfully heard and integrated, the academic institution must be in a position to meet them with its own generally unified view.”

“Less autonomy?” “Diminishing control?” “Unified view?” Indeed. If strategic dynamism is the ideal the Board at UVA was pushing, one doesn’t have to look far to see how recklessly that ideal operates, and how damaging it can be, for the firing of President Sullivan was clearly meant to be strategically dynamic. And boy did it backfire. But we shouldn’t be surprised. If it can screw up an entire nation’s economy it can certainly do the same thing to a university. The manner of Sullivan’s firing is the best argument against the managerial ideal that drove it, and we can at least thank the UVA Board for dramatizing so brazenly what’s at stake in the corporatizing of higher education.

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