Some observations on the UVA debacle.

The following was written by Judith Burstyn, professor of chemistry and former chair of the University Committee at UW-Madison. An abbreviated version appeared in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education.  The full piece is reprinted here (and also at EduOptimists) in its entirety with her permission.

Apparently, at today’s University of Virginia, business values trump all. There is a troubling recent trend toward viewing all public institutions in market terms, where value is measured by dollars produced. In recent years, UW-Madison has felt this too, as some of our leaders focus on efficiency via new “flexibilities.” But universities are not businesses. The proper role of universities is the creation of knowledge for the public good, and education of the new generations of citizens and leaders for civil society. Business management approaches are ill suited to nurture the intellectual expansiveness that underlies great scholarship and deep learning. Reliance on narrow, industry-driven curricula simply won’t do. Great universities encompass a wide variety of disciplines, methods and perspectives, irrespective of the marketability of the knowledge they create. Nourishment of the young minds of our future leaders is invaluable to our country, and the University of Virginia and UW-Madison are shining examples of excellence in this regard. I worry that this excellence is at risk.

Without the human capital embodied in their faculty, universities have nothing to offer the students who enter their doors. Great scholars are in high demand, and competition to hire and retain them is fierce. As President Sullivan said yesterday, “At any great university, the equilibrium – the pull between the desire to stay and the inducements to leave – is delicate.” If faculty members feel unsupported in their scholarly pursuits at one institution, they will move to another where there is greater support. The best scholars are the ones with the greatest number of opportunities; therefore, maintaining an outstanding cadre of faculty is an ongoing challenge. Money, as salary or support for scholarship, is only one of many parameters that influence an individual’s decision to stay at an institution or leave it.  And perhaps some of those who threaten UVA know this—aiming to drive out many of the full-time faculty, creating the opportunity to replace them with bottom-line focused adjuncts.

It is far easier to lose stature as a great university than it is to gain it; wise university leaders understand this, and they bring change to their institutions through steady and deliberate engagement of faculty, staff and students. This was precisely the type of leadership that President Sullivan appeared to be providing. Meaningful participation by these stakeholders in institutional governance is a hallmark of universities that are the most productive in terms of scholarship, and where faculty are most likely to happily reside throughout their careers. The courageous opposition to President Sullivan’s dismissal by the University of Virginia faculty senate and its executive committee, and the student council and their leadership, speak of an institution where shared governance is valued and appreciated—if not respected by its Board of Visitors.

The unilateral decision to remove a sitting university president, in the midst of a summer weekend no less, is unprecedented. Despite objections to the firing of President Sullivan by faculty and student leadership, including a vote of no confidence in the board itself by the faculty senate, the board continued its takeover. Acting like a cabal of thieves, they met late into the night, emerging with an egregious decision to replace Sullivan, a sociologist of work, with an interim president: Carl Zeithaml, F.S. Cornell Professor in Free Enterprise and Dean of the McIntire School of Commerce. This action is inimical to their responsibility as the governing board of a university.  In the words of Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the prestigious Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell, “This is the most egregious case I have ever seen of mismanagement by a governing board.”

Last year UW-Madison engaged in many discussions about the creation of its own governing board. The actions at UVA leave great cause for concern. As University of Michigan professor Michael Bastedo has written, governing boards are increasingly embedded in money and politics, engaging in self-interested decision-making.  They tell us “it’s for your own good” in an attempt at moral seduction, and a desire to appear ethical.  Intelligent communities like those at UVA and UW-Madison do not buy this. And they shouldn’t, if they are to remain the excellent and public institutions we can all respect.

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One Response to Some observations on the UVA debacle.

  1. Frank Rojas says:

    I agree with everything except the last paragraph. It is a huge leap of logic to say that the UVa situation informs anything whatsoever about the UW having its own governing board. The current UW System BOR is appointed in similar fashion to the current UVa BOV. It could go renegade as the UVa board did when controlled by a group of regents appoined by a Governor with an anti-education agenda. I am sure there have been times in history when the UW BOR took actions that the UW faculty and or admin disagreed with in the extreme. Any board has that potential. One positive aspect of the proposed NBP board was that the UW and interested UW groups would appoint many of the board members while the Governor got to appoint just one more for a very slight advantage.

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