The Battle for Higher Ed’s Future: Wall Streeters v. Academics (Point, Academics)

 

Torn down the middle. That’s how the NY Times Magazine’s September Education Issue portrayed UVA’s campus on its cover page, along with a dramatic title: Anatomy of a Campus Coup: The inside story of the failed ouster of the University of Virginia’s president–and what it means for the future of higher education.

By now, many of us know the story of UVA president Teresa Sullivan’s forced resignation and subsequent reinstatement. In fact, it took me a few days to read the Times Magazine cover story because, well, I thought I already knew what had happened. It turns out there was still more to the soap opera, and a little bit of journalistic digging has helped uncover some lessons learned and a conspiracy theory or two. Allow me to summarize the article for you…

At the heart of the drama seemed to be philosophical differences in how to run an elite institution between those that have more of a not-for-profit/higher ed/government background and those that have more of a business/corporate/Wall Street resume. Where these two groups see the future of education heading caused a rift at UVA’s campus that likely revealed schisms happening at institutions all across the country and the world. To the UVA Board of Visitors, an appointed body that oversees the university, Ms. Sullivan was not “CEO” enough in her actions or her image. The drama played out in the media as potential sexism, political jockeying, and fiscal philosophical differences.

But put succinctly, UVA’s board did not think Ms. Sullivan was building enough long term fiscal bets into the strategic plan, such as online programming, and was most certainly not acting fast enough in experimenting with trends like MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) along with the MITs of the world. The board had been influenced, in addition to their MBA-ness, by Clayton M. Christensen’s book “The Innovative University,” which focuses on “disruptive innovation” in higher education. Talk to any private equity wonk and he or she will animatedly tell you how education is poised for disruption–the kind of disruption that could make someone a lot money. So why wasn’t UVA taking advantage of its brand name and keeping up with the times?

Well, let’s set the scene. UVA is considered a top ranked university, right up there with the Ivy Leagues. What sets it apart from these schools though is that UVA is a public school. So already we are not comparing apples to apples. UVA also has a smaller enrollment than many of its peer institutions. And finally, UVA is committed to keeping a higher mix of in-state students than, say, a University of Michigan (state schools typically charge out-of-state students a much higher tuition, thus those schools that have a higher percentage of in-state students cannot depend on out-of-state students to line the coffers). UVA’s president, Teresa Sullivan, has been called a technocrat, an incrementalist, a consensus builder…all those terms that read slow-moving. Some questioned whether she had the inspired spirit needed to run an institution at the presidential level (president’s are well known for helping to raise funds/endowments and acting as the face of the university).

So what does a not-for-profit-type administrator with a background in sociology bring to the table at a place like UVA? Well, we know Ms. Sullivan previously worked as the University of Michigan’s provost, and before that, conducted sociology research at the University of Texas. Her post at Michigan is supposedly one of the reasons she was hired at UVA–she knew how to work in an environment where the state budget was consistently being cut; she knew how to do more with less. While at Texas, where she was “a demographer” and a “numbers cruncher,” she worked on middle class-debt research with Elizabeth Warren, a bankruptcy law  professor who has taught at several institutions, including Harvard, has been a Special Advisor for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under President Obama, and overall, is considered an expert on middle-class finance policy. Ms. Warren is something of a Wall Street-watchdog, advocating for the middle class in a system she feels is “rigged,” (according to her 2012 Democratic National Convention speech delivered just before former President Bill Clinton’s). Warren is also currently running for US Senate in Massachusetts against incumbent Senator Scott Brown. I mention all this because the NY Times article referred to Warren as a “liberal icon” and touches on conspiracy theories that Teresa Sullivan was singled out because of her associations with anti-Wall Street and/or pro-middle-class fiscal policies. The Times points out that, in hindsight, this seems unlikely, though at the time, it may have fueled some of the flames. But because the Governor of Virginia is responsible for appointing the board, and he happened to be Republican, and because members of the board also happened to be some of UVA’s biggest donors, political suspicions abounded.

Many people believe the UVA board used a faculty letter as a proxy to oust Sullivan. Faculty, tired of flat salaries they considered uncompetitive, wrote a letter asking for “urgent and immediate action.” Helen Dragas, rector/leader of the board, began lobbying for support to remove Sullivan. She wrote the following to a fellow board member: “I am growing increasingly nervous that others are thinking about big trends and long term prospects for higher education delivery and funding.” She reached out to board members one-by-one, some say to avoid attracting attention (in Virginia, university board member meetings of more than two persons are public record). She then advised Virginia’s Governor McDonnell of her plans. All systems seemed to be on go for Dragas. What is ultimately interesting about this faculty letter is that the faculty of UVA joined the reinstate-Sullivan-camp after the ouster. The Times summed it up by suggesting that faculty may voice gripes, but when it comes down to it, they prefer an academic in charge over a business person.

The faculty, the students, and a former (and influential) board member, all mounted a counterattack. The Times reported that vandals had spray-painted the six front columns of the school’s neoclassical Rotunda with the letters “G-R-E-E-E-D.” And the more the board tried to tell faculty this change was a good thing, the more faculty became “paranoid” that big money donors were controlling the strings at UVA. When Sullivan gave her goodbye speech to the board, people gathered on the lawn to protest her departure. The public relations mess that followed only further riled Sullivan’s supporters. “The national news media seized onto the story, which seemed to dramatize a broader conflict between big money and public education,” according to the Times; and further, “the conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal accused the protesting faculty of trying to create ‘an academic Green Zone separated from economic reality,’ while liberal publications held up Sullivan as a symbol of a beleaguered egalitarian ideal.” Ms. Dragas, the leader of the board, lost many of her backers after the decision to remove Sullivan, and Governor McDonnell called on the board to figure this mess out or resign. Sullivan was reinstated as UVA’s president on June 26, 2012. And ironically, on July 17th, it was reported that UVA would participate in a MOOC initiative with Coursera via Stanford University.

So what really happened at UVA? Was it sexism in reaction to UVA’s first female president, was it a Republican conspiracy fueled by big donors and a Republican governor, was it MBA/Wall Street bravado? We may never really know. But I think it is an important lesson in public administration. As the public sector adopts the more useful fiscal practices of the private sector, we must remember that feeding the needs of a public entity is a balancing act, even more so than sustaining a corporation. While business courses try and teach leaders how to run a company that treats its employees as more than just human resources, as a part of the company as a whole, in the public sector,  the people are our shareholders. And in education, which is a Public Good, whether the school be private or public, we have an obligation to run institutions in a manner that helps our investments–the students who are our future and the faculty who are showing them the way–best flourish.

I will end on a final note that I think captures a major schism between public and private business management as related to the UVA story. A UVA board member who considers himself more an entrepreneur than a Wall Streeter provided this analysis: “This board comes predominantly from the corporate sector, and they were not used to dealing with people who have academic tenure and can say whatever they want. They are used to being able to fire people who do that.”

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