- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

UVA Drives Off The Real Deal

I haven’t been following the mess at the University of Virginia, which defenestrated its president, Teresa Sullivan, in a very dodgy process. Lots happened yesterday on the campus, which is in great turmoil. [1]

UVA alumnus Alan Jacobs has kept track of thing,  and writes about the matter here.  [2] First, he quotes Sullivan’s statement [3] from today, which reads in part:

A dramatic top-down reallocation in our general fund, simply to show that we are “changing,” or that we are not “incremental,” seems to me fiscally imprudent, highly alarming to faculty, and unfair to students who expect to get a broadly inclusive education here. I have chosen a lower-risk and more conservative strategy, because I am accountable to the taxpayers and the tuition payers.

If we were to embark on a course of deep top-down cuts, there would also be difficult questions regarding what to cut. A university that does not teach the full range of arts and sciences will no longer be a university. Certainly it will no longer be respected as such by its former peers.

Jacobs adds:

I strongly suspect that this is one of those cases where clarity and directness of prose are indicative of incisive thinking and honesty. Contrast Sullivan’s statement to the cliché-laden, evasive, and intellectually and factually empty press release by the university’s rector, Helen Dragas [4]. Read the two documents and, just as a little thought experiment, ask yourself: Which of these women would I want to lead a university I worked for?

I did read the Dragas statement. Jacobs is dead right. I don’t know enough about this episode to form an opinion, but I encourage you to read his whole comment [2]. I’d like to hear in the comboxes from readers who have been following the UVA situation, and care to offer insight.

By the way, I don’t feel too sorry for Sullivan. From the WaPo:

In a proposed settlement, Sullivan would receive her presidential compensation package, $680,000, for another year of sabbatical, research and consulting after her Aug. 15 departure, according to a person briefed on the document. She could then return to teaching sociology at a salary of $170,000, plus about $360,000 in deferred compensation.

Uh, wow. Doesn’t make what happened to her and the way it happened right, but still … wow.

UPDATE: UVA today named — wait for it — the dean of the undergraduate business school [5] to the presidency.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "UVA Drives Off The Real Deal"

#1 Comment By Fred Glauser On June 19, 2012 @ 9:41 am

Come on Mr Dreher – Sullivan’s settlement package has nothing to do with the ongoing controversy. By mentioning it, you just muddy the waters.

#2 Comment By SteveM On June 19, 2012 @ 10:26 am

Rod, I don’t have a dog in the fight and I don’t know if Dragas has any hidden motivations, but the clear fact is that the higher ed bubble is about to burst.

I have a feeling that Dragas and the Board realize that while Sullivan wants to play “Extend and Pretend” the University’s current operational and financial models however unsustainable over the long term. Some issue points:

Over the last 20 years, universities in general have over-built and over-accommodated students with new, elaborate facilities. Those are sunk costs, but the bonds issued to build them still have to be paid back. I.e., they can’t sell the buildings but the money to pay for them has to come from somewhere.

Four years ago, university endowment fund managers planned on 8%+ ROI. Days of those kinds of returns are gone, maybe for good. Which means huge cash flow hits for the endowments. Moreover, annual giving can be expected to decrease consistent with the flat incomes and devalued net worth of alumni.

UVA is a state institution with an implied responsibility to educate the residents of Virginia whose parents pay state taxes. The implications of the Sullivan model are the admission of even greater percentages of out of state and foreign students who pay full out of state tuition, thereby crowding out native Virginians. Is educating rich out of state/foreign students with the full panoply of arcane courses UVA’s primary mission?

Dragas et al., appear to be prescient enough to realize that the status quo is not sustainable and Sullivan’s incremental change is not change enough.

In a tanked, low/no growth economy, tough choices between tuition hikes and program offerings have to be made. The Board may have been clumsy. But not necessarily stupid.

#3 Comment By make it old On June 19, 2012 @ 10:30 am

I tend to agree that Sullivan’s prose is cleaner and has more of the ring of truth. Too bad that she uses a PC cliche like “broadly inclusive” (in a paragraph purporting to attack cliches no less) to make her case.

#4 Comment By Liam On June 19, 2012 @ 10:36 am

Proud and loving alumnus (College ’83 – to date me, let’s just say Ralph Sampson was in my class) here. I am furious at the Rector and Board of Visitors for the way they have conducted themselves – they have proven themselves unready for prime time, as it were, but more like a little secret society (the University has lots of those…). The local blogs and electronic news sites have covered a great deal. The national news media has not done the situation justice. It’s a very sad turn of events, but all that I can hope is that the glare of media will cast abundant sunshine over places where dim light has allowed a bad governance culture to spread like mildew.

#5 Comment By Brian On June 19, 2012 @ 10:55 am

“seems to me fiscally imprudent, highly alarming to faculty, and unfair to students”

First comes money, then faculty, and then finally students. Yep, that’s about right as to how the contemporary university prioritizes things.

Who cares about these people? Let them play their silly little campus political games.

#6 Comment By Anonymous On June 19, 2012 @ 11:03 am

No, her salary as a Sociology professor is relevant. It helps us understand why the university apparently finds a hard time funding the humanities and social sciences.

A full professor makes $170k in salary? Are you kidding me?

#7 Comment By Tyro On June 19, 2012 @ 11:58 am

The Board of Visitors acted like a bunch of management consultants looking for executives who were willing to mouth the right buzzwords and start “right sizing” by engaging in “strategic dynamism” rather than running a prestigious academic institution trying to figure out how to maintain its quality and reputation. The common thread from the board of Visitors, including Dragas and Kiernan, was that they had a lot of money, and they believed that being rich made them uniquely qualified to determine that they had a “vision” for higher education. This is another case of a failure of our elite institutions.

And yes,, a senior professor and scholar in her peak earning years after decades of experience who made it through decades of “up or out” gauntlets will make the same as a 30 year old physician fresh after finishing residency. That sounds roughly right to me.

#8 Comment By Charles Cosimano On June 19, 2012 @ 11:59 am

They threw the university president out the window? Sounds like it has gone back to the 60s.

#9 Comment By Christopher On June 19, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

UVA is a top notch state funded research institution. Research universities exist to develop and promote cutting edge research and enrich our culture. Teaching students is very very very much a secondary mission. The role of faculty at a research institution is *not* to teach undergraduates but instead to develop research and the grant funding that accompany it to help fund their work. Many profs at research institutions regard teaching as an onerous burden that impedes their ability to write and conduct research. In California, you have the UC system that is heavily research oriented and the CSU system that is oriented to teaching. The CSU system is cheaper and you can perhaps get a better education as an undergraduate. Also understand that academe is perhaps one of the more vicious, gladiatorial, environments one can imagine. Back stabbing and intra-departmental feuding is very common in higher ed as is administrative incompetence. Grad students are a source of cheap exploitable labor. I suspect that many faculty are socialists because they believe the private sector functions like academe! While Sullivan may be an educational visionary, and I applaud her desire to protect the social sciences and humanities as central to the mission of universities, her primary job as president is to bring in money money and more money and promoting the institution’s public image. THe fact that the board and the President are at loggerheads and this is a vicious power struggle comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the culture of academe.

#10 Comment By cka2nd On June 19, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

Initial thought before reading Jacobs:

I read somewhere years ago that UVA was at the forefront of the trend of legislatures simultaneously cutting back drastically on public funding while increasing their interference in – excuse me, oversight of – academic affairs. I imagine this went hand-in-hand with shifting more and more power from a shrinking faculty to a fat-cat board and newly bloated administration, and funding much of the over-building mentioned above by chasing large donations and increasing tuition at a rate well above the CPI.

I don’t know exactly how realistic the picture of university governance was in the movie, “We Are Marshall,” but can anyone even imagine a university board with that kind of – sorry, make it old – economic inclusiveness? It was like a giant school board!

#11 Comment By Roger McCarthy On June 19, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

It’s good to see there is one conservative left who actually does care about the survival of useless subjects like Classics and German.

And here’s the new president of Thomas Jefferson’s university:

‘Dean Zeithaml specializes in the field of strategic management, with an emphasis on global and competitive strategy. He conducts research on international expansion strategies, knowledge-based sources of competitive advantage, corporate political activity, strategic decision making, the strategic role of the board of directors, the implementation of acquisition and diversification strategies, and organizational transformation’.

#12 Comment By Mont D. Law On June 19, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

Like everything else these people touch in 30 years you will look at the smoldering ruin that is the UVA and wonder where it all went wrong. Just like you are looking at the ruins of your economy right now. Jefferson’s dream survived intact for 200 years only to be destroyed by a negligent state and some sharpies with money.

#13 Comment By Ken On June 19, 2012 @ 7:42 pm

Absolutely everyone in town is disgusted at the secret and high-handed way the Board of Visitors went about the firing. Everyone, that is, except the conservative talk show host who hates the UVA faculty because they’re liberal, and is seething at them instead, and mocking a faculty member who broke down in public about Sullivan’s firing.

It appears that the board may have acted at the behest of a potential donor offering a nine-figure donation, but at least one other big donor is now reconsidering her relationship with the school. One esteemed professor in the computer science department has resigned, writing that “A BOV that so poorly understands UVA, and academic culture more generally, is going to make a lot more dumb decisions, so the University is headed for disaster.” And so has the Vice-Rector, a Board member who voted for the firing.

#14 Comment By Mary Russell On June 19, 2012 @ 8:20 pm

“UVA is a top notch state funded research institution.”

UVA class of 94 here.
While the above may be true, it is Virginia Tech which is known in state as the research and engineering school. UVA is more of a liberal arts school. When I was there, English was the most popular major and it graduated more English majors than any other university in the country. It had the best religious studies dept in the country at the time. As one would expect, the history dept at UVA was a very fine one.
So it’s bad news that the university is wanting to cut funding for its strengths.
Another thing- UVA deserves it’s party school reputation, and the student body is pretty complacent about political and administrative issues. Maybe things have changed since my time, but it’s surprising that students came out in such numbers to support the prez.

#15 Comment By sdb On June 19, 2012 @ 10:09 pm

@Christopher Who are all these research profs you speak of? I’ve been at research universities for nearly 20years as a graduate student, post-doc, and faculty member (including faculty senate representative). I’ve sat on countless university wide committees – I’ve yet to meet these faculty who think teaching faculty is a distraction from their main work of research. When I talk to my colleagues at conferences I do spend a lot of time comparing notes on how to better teach various topics. Symposia at our professional meetings discussing curriculum, assessment, and pedagogy are often standing room only. In my field, Harvard profs like Eric Mazur and noble laureates like Carl Weiman take teaching very, very seriously. Feymann didn’t exactly see teaching as a distraction. I’m not saying that there are no profs who don’t care about teaching undergrads, but I haven’t met them yet. I don’t think it is nearly as common as you suggest.

With all the chatter about the higher-ed bubble, etc… it is crucial to look at hard data on university spending. According to the Goldwater report, total spending by universities grew about 1.5%/yr relative to inflation from 1994-2007 at public schools. Much of this was fueled by endowment spending driven by the tech then housing bubbles. The explosion in tuition is a shifting of who pays, not how much higher-ed costs. At the public research school I teach at, direct state funding in non-inflation adjusted dollars is lower now than it was in the 1980’s. It now accounts for less than 10% of our budget; however, we are still beholden to state regulations whose compliance costs are incredibly costly. We’ve replaced direct state aid with lottery scholarships (which can be spent at public or private schools in the state). This drives up the sticker price, though almost no one pays that. I don’t have data on how common this is across the country, but it has generated inflated sticker prices that don’t reflect higher-ed inflation.

The threat to quality higher ed isn’t the 3 or 4 X-studies profs on each campus and their two majors. It is the explosion of business degrees (and MBAs) many of which impart no real skills and do little more than prepare students (at very high cost – compare the salaries of business profs to sociology profs) to work as assistant managers at KFC. There is nothing wrong with being the assistant manager of a fast-food restaurant, but I don’t see why a four-year degree is necessary for it. The second threat facing higher-ed is from accreditors. The amount of money wasted by universities meeting absurd dept of ed/regional accreditation requirements is sickening.