The dramatic firing of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan raises many questions about the rise of the new corporate university.
It raises questions about decisionmaking, since the university’s board sought Sullivan’s resignation without a formal meeting or vote, through a campaign waged privately by Rector Helen E. Dragas, Vice Rector Mark Kington, and without any public explanation of either the process or the reasons behind the decision.
And it raises questions about the new corporate university as a workplace [ht: db]:
UVA has been the site of an intense organizational struggle for the soul of the modern public university. Those who forced Sullivan out –a billionaire hedge fund manager and a wealthy real estate developer— seem to hold a vision of the university that relegates the liberal arts to the periphery of the campus, while placing market-friendly organizational logics at the core of UVA’s operations. For her part, Sullivan sought to strengthen the historic foundations of the university, adapting its long-standing commitments in ways that comport with 21st century realities. Here, in other words, was a clash between two opposing entities: On the one hand, a small group of aggressive and ambitious businesspeople, appointed by yet another right-wing governor, seeking to remake UVA in their own image; and on the other hand, a staunch advocate of the liberal arts tradition that has served UVA so well for generations.
Questions abound. Is this higher education’s Wisconsin moment? Can the Board of Visitors prevail, in spite of growing opposition from students, faculty, donors, and alumni? If so sudden and arbitrary a change in an institution’s core mission can happen at the University of Virginia, what does that portend for less well endowed and less privileged institutions? What will happen to our own workplaces, in other words, if so venerable an institution can be lurched in a direction that is alien to its mission?
In a final confirmation of what this new corporate university is supposed to be, UVA’s board replaced Sullivan with Carl Zeithaml, F.S. Cornell Professor in Free Enterprise and dean of the McIntire School of Commerce.
And then, of course, there’s the neoclassical economist, Richard Vedder (paywall), who sees the problem not in terms of what a university is but as an issue of property rights.
Regarding governance, I think the Faculty Senate’s reaction shows confusion about who runs the university. Legally, the faculty work for the board, not vice versa. But the faculty don’t consider the trustees their bosses. That demonstrates a major problem: a murky conception of property rights and governance. The faculty believe that, since they do all the teaching and research, they are the university, and administrators are just support personnel. Sometimes the administration thinks it is the university; at other times the governor, legislature, or the alumni think the same.
In such a situation, universities move to a “shared governance” model that is inefficient, rather non-innovative, and confusing. The UVa story reflects that reality. Whether the Board of Visitors acted appropriately, I don’t know, but I do think that universities require oversight from the outsiders that provide vast portions of their support.