Music: iamamiwhoami: Kin (2012)
Yesterday the University of Virginia’s equivalent to a board of regents issued the first of what I suspect will be a number of statements regarding the abrupt and unforeseen firing of its president, Terry Sullivan. Sullivan was Vice President and Dean of Graduate Studies here at the University of Texas at one time, and roundly recognized by a number of folks I know as one of the most ethical and professional colleagues they have worked with. Because she is so widely liked and respected, I’m assured, she’ll be able to leave Virginia and relocate easily if she wishes.
That she is so widely respected and liked is why her ouster is all the more puzzling: why would a university’s governing board fire a popular president without warning? Numerous leaders and department chairs have signed a letter to the board requesting transparency. The statement released yesterday underscores Sullivan was in “extended” talks about the future health of the university and that the firing came as a consequence of deep “philosophical” differences.
While the details here are rather murky, I don’t think it’s very difficult to fill in the blanks. Here’s what we do know: like the University of Texas’s Board of Regents, the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors is comprised of political appointees, most of whom are not educators but businesspeople. The Rector who many are murmuring is responsible for orchestrating the push is Helen Dragas, a real estate mogul who has differences of opinion with Sullivan. Obviously one of those key differences concerns the relationship between public and private. We see it in just about every notable public university: political appointees, almost always “conservative,” see the privatization of the university as inevitable. The problem with this “philosophy,” of course, is that it is internally contradictory: on the one hand, those who would force the university to be more “accountable” want to micromanage it, which is counterintuitive; on the other hand, states keep draining the public university budgets and then passing laws that prevent tuition hikes. No doubt Sullivan had to battle the same contradictory philosophy UT’s President Powers is battling (and as I blogged earlier, apparently risking his own job).
So, what’s happened in Virginia is happening in Texas. And as a colleague observed yesterday, it’s happening everywhere: Richard Lariviere was fired by Oregon’s Board of Higher Education abruptly, citing philosophical differences too (Lariviere dared to give faculty raises and fight for his university’s independence from the state system). I’ve already blogged about LSU’s firing, and then there’s the University of Wisconsin and the University of Arizona. In each case we have a fight over the public university as a resource for private industry, in some sense entirely in keeping with the land grant mission of the public university, but also in a sense decidedly not (in the sense that actually educating people is on the decline).
A trusted colleague who keeps better tabs on higher education politics is suggesting the real rationale for Sullivan’s firing is her resistance to transform the University of Virginia into another for-profit university. The for-profit movement has only gathered momentum; its business model concerns massive “classes” of folks taking online courses, which obviates the need for bricks and mortar or actual bodies in space. She notes that study after study has shown that to be educationally beneficial and effective, online courses require as much (if not more) resources than an actual, “traditional” classroom experience. This means, at least empirically, the real business model concerns sub-par and inferior instruction in favor of increasing enrollments.
What’s really going on with Sullivan’s firing, then, is the Final Culture War. Now that primary and secondary education has been gutted and thoroughly politicized, the last frontier is higher education. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a so-called conservative policy think-tank, is frank about their agenda to politicize higher education, and they have been quite effective here in Texas (even getting their inside guy on the UT board as a hired consultant, until he was fired for being, more or less, unprofessional and using bad data to support policy recommendations). What’s happening in Louisiana and Oregon and Virginia is part of this larger movement to politicize higher education.
What this means for the university is not good. And we have two viable responses. First and foremost, since “accountability” is the rally-cry for this recent politicization of higher education (by which I mean, neo-conservative-ization), we have to have a hand in assessment metrics. My colleague Rick Cherwitz has been saying this for years, and I do think he’s correct: if we don’t figure out our own modes of assessing accountability, then they will be imposed from without. By real estate overlords.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, we have a PR problem. Talk to anyone outside of a university community—including the left leaning—and there is a widespread perception that the professoriate are lazy, don’t really work, have summers off, and so forth. It’s a tiresome and relentless stereotype, but it persists and influences policy. We need to figure out a better way to represent the academic and do the work of the public intellectual.
As a small step, I’ve been thinking about developing a thirty to forty minute lecture on “the life of the academic,” and then giving it randomly to my large lecture classes. In this lecture, I would describe the history of the university and my field, and then how the role of the professor has changed from the formation of the land grant public institution to today. I would detail a typical “day in the life,” discussing meetings, the shear amount of letters of recommendation I write—an exhaustive account, really, of all the hidden labor of the academic. It’s likely a student has never really been introduced to all of this stuff. While I don’t think such a lecture would make a huge difference in the larger, cultural stereotype of the professor, it would at least give hundreds of students a year a better representation.