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June 18, 2012 5:18 PM Who Runs the University of Virginia?

By Daniel Luzer

Last week, on June 10, the president of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, who had only occupied her position for two years, was officially dismissed as president of the university.

No one’s really eager to explain why Sullivan was fired, though board members of Virginia’s flagship state university have issued vague, corporate statements about the need for restructuring. Since when did UVA become a company? Is the school just too beholden to the rich people on the board? That’s what one professor at the school thinks.

The Chairman of the Darden School [UVA’s business school] Foundation Board of Trustees Peter Kiernan, who apparently helped to get rid of Sullivan, explained that the board of visitors (that’s UVA’s name for the board of trustees) wanted to move in a different “direction” with the institution:

The decision of the Board of Visitors to move in another direction stems from their concern that the governance of the University was not sufficiently tuned to the dramatic changes we all face: funding, Internet, technology advances, the new economic model. These are matters for strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning.

Kiernan, a hedge fund billionaire and former Goldman Sachs partner, is apparently engaged in some bizarre, corporate sloganeering. (And this, incidentally, doesn’t even come from official PR speak. This is an internal “leaked email from Kiernan.”)

What does that really mean? In general an academic administrator is only fired after two years for severe misconduct. What was the problem? Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, writes in Slate that Sullivan was apparently very popular:

I can’t begin to describe the level of shock this generated among alumni, students, and faculty. Suffice it to say that everyone—every dean, every professor, every student, and every staff member at the university—was surprised. Even Sullivan did not have a clue that this was coming down until the Friday before the Sunday announcement. I can describe two things: the affection and respect that the university community had for president Sullivan in her two short years in office; and the bizarre turn of events that led to her forced resignation.
The first year of Sullivan’s tenure involved hiring her own staff, provost, and administrative vice president. In her second year she had her team and set about reforming and streamlining the budget system, a process that promised to save money and clarify how money flows from one part of the university to another. This was her top priority. It was also the Board of Visitor’s top priority—at least at the time she was hired. Sullivan was rare among university presidents in that she managed to get every segment of the diverse community and varied stakeholders to buy in to her vision and plan. Everyone bought in, that is, except for a handful of very, very rich people, some of whom happen to be political appointees to the Board of Visitors.

As he goes on to explain “at some point… we started assuming that if people are rich enough, they must be experts in all things. That’s why we trust Mark Zuckerberg to save Newark schools and Bill Gates to rid the world of malaria.”

So what was the problem? No enough strategic dynamism? According to an article by Daniel de Vise and Anita Kumar 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.

Some members of the board apparently started a campaign to force Sullivan out in October. “They felt Sullivan lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German,” according to de Vise and Kumar. In March, when someone asked Sullivan if there was room for UVA to cut costs, the president apparently responded that she didn’t see anything big. “[I]n terms of big areas where there are obvious cost savings, I don’t think we have those. . . . ” The university was already “pretty lean,” she said. “I worry about getting very much leaner.’’

The board apparently doesn’t feel that way. It wants to eliminate German and classics and focus on the great possibilities for UVA’s future inspired by the “Internet [and] technology advances.”

According to numerous sources, it appears one of Sullivan’s chief opponents was University Rector Helen Dragas, a real estate developer. De Vise and Kumar: “In conversations before and since the ouster, Dragas has portrayed Sullivan as an adequate day-to-day caretaker but someone incapable of long-term vision.

Perhaps. It appears more likely, however, that Sullivan simply had a different long term vision from some of the board members.

Vaidhyanathan’s article in Slate was obviously an opinion piece, and he’s not necessarily right that Sullivan was universally loved and respected. Part of the president’s job is to raise money for the institution, after all, and if the board (or a significant portion of the board) didn’t feel like Sullivan was in a good position to raise money, well, that’s certainly something to consider.

But Vaidhyanathan is right about one thing, which our weekend guest blogger hit on yesterday as well: limited sources of public funding don’t just promote “innovation,” “creativity,” and “competition” so many of the things that are good about capitalism and make America great. Promoting innovation is one of the frequent reasons cited to privatize public things. In the last decade, public funding per in-state student at UVA has gone from $15,247 to $8,310. Does this make the university innovative, or just desperate?

It looks like when public funding dries up, this simply makes the institution really, really beholden to random rich people and their whims and fads. So Dragas and Kiernan want a new president who will take full advantage of the “Internet and technology advances.” Why? Is that something UVA should focus on? Is that what makes UVA great?

When Thomas Jefferson founded the university in 1819 he wrote that “this institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For 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 I’m missing something here, but it seems that maintaining rigorous classics and German departments is primary to fulfilling that mission. The Internet seems decidedly secondary.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

Comments

  • Gene O'Grady on June 18, 2012 7:45 PM:

    Many years ago I was the admin for a guy (not one of the business guys I really respected -- actually I really respected most of them, but not this guy) who was charged with selecting an outside consultant. Interviewed a few consulting firms, and then were faced with the task of telling the losers they had lost without telling the truth or lying. His cynically clever solution sounded just like what Kiernan came up with, and was probably just as factual.