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Friday, June 22, 2012

Corporate Hacks Dominate at Mr. Jefferson’s University


The University of Virginia was thrown into a bit of an uproar in June 2012 after the university's president, Teresa Sullivan, “a 62-year-old eminent scholar of labor-force demography whose appointment drew national attention in 2010, was forced out during a closed-door session of the Board of Visitors in which no official vote was taken. The June 10 announcement that she would resign blindsided Sullivan and ignited wide outrage and protests,” according to the Associated Press. This controversy showcases the contemporary “corporatizing” tendency that has been taking place in university governance more generally. For non-academics to trump scholars on matters touching on academic policy is at the very least counter-productive (if not illogical). In this essay, I discuss Sullivan’s ouster at Virginia in order to advance the proposition that faculty senates rather than boards of corporate managers should have the final say on policy at colleges and universities. At public universities, only a legislature or president should be able to over-rule a faculty (assuming there is a very significant proportion of public funding).

Regarding the controversy at the University of Virginia, the Associated Press reported that, “(f)or her part, Rector Helen Dragas publicly disclosed Thursday more detailed reasoning behind Sullivan’s ouster.” She “did acknowledge that the board mishandled Sullivan’s removal, and apologized. ‘In my view we did the right thing, the wrong way,’ Dragas said.” Her “six-page statement said Sullivan wasn’t acting quickly enough to address financial pressures facing higher education, the role of online learning, changes in the health care environment, the increased student-faculty ratio, fundraising, and other strategic challenges. The university lacks long-range plans on several of those fronts, it added. ‘No matter how you feel about our actions, these challenges represent some very high hurdles that stand in the way of our university’s path to continued success in the coming decade, and they are going to remain front and center for the next board and the next president over the coming years,’ the statement said.”

 For her part, Sullivan countered by saying, “Sweeping action may be gratifying and may create the aura of strong leadership, but its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear.” Moreover, “Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university,” she said. “Sustained change with buy-in does work.” The subtext here is that scholars don’t behave like corporate managers. Running a college is more like herding cats than managing by memo. Not being scholars themselves, the board and its chair at Virginia missed this vital distinction. According to the New York Times, “(m)any public university presidents, past and present, said that those on the boards of the leading universities — typically business executives without much experience in academia — do not always understand the complexities of leading a large research university, and the degree to which a president can succeed only by persuading. ‘Everybody thinks university presidents are hierarchical and top-down,” said Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami . . . ‘But we are not corporate chieftains, and we cannot rule from the sky. We are more like tugboat captains, trying to get our ships aligned and pulling them in the right direction.’ The great research universities, she said, have achieved their dominant position in the world through shared faculty governance, and leaving faculty both academic and research freedom.” Such freedom does not compute from a corporate mindset. Whereas military-style “orders” are commonplace in the business world, scholars bristle at the prospect of a colleague barking out commands. "In the end," according to the Times, "the fundamental disagreement at the University of Virginia concerned the approach to change that the president should take — either incremental, with buy-in from each of the constituencies, or more radical, imposed from the top." That is, the ways of academic clashed with an interlarded corporate approach.

Indeed, the board at Virginia came from a very different world than that of years in a doctoral program followed by still more years working toward tenure. "Political contributions to our governors have become more important factors in the selection of our board members," said John Casteen III, who served as President of UVA for the 20 years prior to Sullivan's appointment. According to the Huffington Post, The UVA Board of Visitors included “a real estate developer, a coal company magnate, a Wall Street professional, a top lawyer for General Electric, a nursing home executive, [and] a beer distribution entrepreneur.” Lest it be presumed that the lawyer (or a physician) could substitute for a scholar, neither the first degree in law nor the first degree in medicine constitutes a doctorate. 

Accordingly, the board's motivation may have been rather pedestrian, or corporate (think of Fuld at Lehman Bros or Coyne at Bear Stearns), without due respect for the academic values and traditions particularly dear to the scholars who teach at the university. The Huffington Post reports that emails between the Rector and Vice-Rector “indicate that much of their motivation to remove Sullivan stemmed from three media articles, rather than professional or academic literature. One, a New York Times column by David Brooks, lauded online courses, as did a Wall Street Journal editorial, and an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.” In one email, the Vice Rector even suggests that providing a “modicum of candor” might be prudent. I smell a rat. 

The secrecy of the board’s decision alone—without even a formal vote being taken (and given the failure of the Rector to adequately explain her “board’s” decision after the fact to the faculty senate meeting behind closed doors)—suggests that the real reason could have had more to do with personalities than policy. However, if “philosophical differences” were at issue as Sullivan suggests in her public statement after her firing, I submit that it is scholars rather than political donors from the business world and that of the professions who have the wherewithal to make judgments regarding academic matters, as in determining whether (and how much) to expand on-line courses. According to the New York Times, Dragas had been "especially concerned about pushing ahead in online learning." Sullivan warned that online education was no panacea — and indeed, was “surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential and unless carefully managed can undermine the quality of instruction.” Scholars such as Sullivan are in a much better position to judge the academic suitability of such courses than is a beer distributor, a business executive, or a physician.

Pedagogy as well as learning can take a real hit if technology is relied on too much, especially at the doctoral level where the in-person aspect of seminars has real academic value. To assess that value, one must have experienced it oneself, rather than merely read about it online. Regarding the for-profit colleges that offer “on-line doctorates,” I worry that the doctoral degree itself is being rarified rather than protected. I have met students in such programs who somehow claim to know all about the alternative that they are missing. Of course, they are perfectly able to dismiss its academic value without even a suspicion that they could be wrong about something they have never experienced. Such a mark of closed ignorance among “doctoral students” is itself a red flag concerning where “higher education” in America is headed. 

In the case of on-line courses, the application to freshman and sophomore lecture classes is one thing, whereas the application to doctoral seminars is quite another. My point is that scholars who have lectured in large lecture halls and taught small graduate seminars are in a unique position (i.e., superior to non-academics on a university's board) to discern this vital difference. That a beer distributor would sit in judgment over a professor's judgment on such a matter is a bit like wandering down the rabbit hole only to expect things to be the same. To a scholar, the presumptuous entitlement of such overarching ignorance can only be emetic, not to mention downright insulting.

Generally speaking with respect to the academic and corporate worlds, what is of value in academic terms does not necessarily translate into financial terms (or value). A visiting scholar at a university who does research, for example, is likely a “zero budget item” (i.e., not paid by the university), yet he or she is of high academic status by virtue of having earned a doctorate (and perhaps even published a book, by which I don't mean one filled with simplistic bullet-points and overly-complex organizational diagrams).

To a business practitioner or professional (i.e., a lawyer, CPA, or physician), such academic status sans salary does not translate, and thus is of no value. In fact, the value would be negative, given the presumed opportunity cost (i.e., the money that could otherwise be earned by being bored in a mindless corporate cubicle). Lets be clear: that something has no value in corporate or business terms does not mean that it has no value. Even if a society allows its business sector to set societal norms, the realm of knowledge (i.e., scientia) is not so pliable, at least in principle. Perhaps the same could be said of the religious realm. How much value in business terms can be attributed to the Kingdom of God, for instance?

Showing its true colors, the “corporate” board at the University of Virginia evinced an utter lack of respect for the university's scholars by refusing even to provide the faculty senate with an explanation with a “modicum of candor.” To reduce scholars to a modern employee-classification (which is a given at least at for-profit "universities") ignores the academic status of scholars in academia. That is, it ignores the qualitative differences that distinguish faculty, staff, and students at a college or university.

Some staff try to get around basic clusters (i.e., faculty, staff, and students) by referring to themselves as "academic staff." To be sure, librarians are not exactly kitchen help, but neither do librarians hold a doctoral degree (e.g., the DBA, Ph.D., D.Sci.M., J.S.D., or Ed.D.). Hence, even the very laudable (and valuable) librarians working in academic libraries cannot be counted as colleagues with the scholars.

At one large research university at least, a significant number of graduate students in doctoral programs in the liberal arts claim to be colleagues with their professors because those students teach too. They refer to the "undergrads" there as the students. "I'm not a student; I'm a graduate student" is the sort of illogical claim made as if with impunity by some of the more arrogant usurpers. Their teaching, by the way, is typically limited to discussion sections of their professors' lecture classes.

Lest there be any confusion, graduate students are not colleagues with their professors. That this rather basic academic point is denied or ignored when convenient is just another indication that modern academia is under threat even from within its ranks. The fact that university governance boards increasingly rely on people from outside academia suggests that academic mores and standards will not be protected even from the encroaching decadence within universities.

Referring to Sullivan's firing, a program officer at the American Association of University Professors laid out the basic flaw that has been allowed to fester in university governance. "More and more boards come from non-academic backgrounds, and one consequence of that is a lack of appreciation for and understanding of the academic enterprise,” said Robert Kreiser. He told the Huffington Post that "the UVA debacle is only the most extreme example of an ongoing phenomenon in which those ‘who don't appreciate what higher education is about and who are more concerned about corporate interests and corporate considerations’ come to govern academia.” Both the hegemony of corporate interests (and values) in corporate governance and the tacit lack of respect in the business sector (and American society more generally) for the vocation of the scholar should be (but sadly are not) recognized as red flags. At the very least, the priority belies any interest in the higher education of generations to come (i.e., your children).

Therefore, we should return to the classical notion that a faculty of scholars ought to have the final say in the running of a college or university. At the very least, a version of the business judgment rule in corporate governance (wherein managerial judgment on business matters trumps stockholder votes) should apply to a faculty's academic judgment trumping decisions of a non-academic board (and even a legislature or president in the case of a public university).

The university as an institution has been around, at least in the West, since the High Middle Age. Aquinas, for example, taught at the university in Paris. Applying a corporate mindset (or governance structure) on top of such a seasoned institution is bound to cause problems. I would not blame the professors at the University of Virginia were they more than just a bit annoyed at being relegated on their own turf, or campus (which literally means “field” in Latin), by people in the "real world." This expression itself is highly insulting, as it conveys a judgment of utter dismissiveness regarding the world of academia. The message is that the pursuit of knowledge is in itself inherently irrelevant (e.g., of "the Ivory Tower"). Let’s be clear: wanting to get something useful out of a university does not necessarily involve respect for its sui generis (i.e., unique) ways and values. Furthermore, to filter knowledge according to its contemporary usefulness and display the results as if a poll on power-point slides vastly misconstrues even what knowledge is. To presume to govern the enterprise from such an “understanding” is at the very least audacious, not to mention disrespectful and even reckless.

It is time, in other words, to return academia to the men and women who know and respect it on its own terms (i.e., rather than trying to turn it into a different beast). This is the real lesson coming out of the tussle at Mr. Jefferson’s university, where truth, at least in pinciple, is to be pursued no matter where it leads. Business managers and even the folks in the professional caste do not have this faith. They are thus utterly unsuited in their presumptive entitlement to govern academia as if business trumps knowledge. In other words, there should be some check within academia on the infiltration of the subverted societal values. What's good for GM is not necessarily good for the classroom. 

Fides de scientia: Lux et Veritas must be nurtured, pursued, and protected as ends in themselves, rather than squandered for sordid lucre or subjected to petty politics.


Sources:

Zach Carter and Jason Linkins, “Teresa Sullivan University of Virginia Ouster Led by Politcal DonorsLacking Academic Experience,” The Huffington Post, June 21, 2012.


Associated Press, “University of Virginia Board to Meet to Consider Reinstating President; RectorDefends Ouster,” The Washington Post, June 21, 2012. 

Tamar Lewin, "Public Universities See Familiar Fight at Virginia," The New York Times, June 25, 2012.