The Future of Higher Ed is in Virginia

First of all, shana tovah to all my shrewish readers. (Did Mel Brooks say that first? I can’t find it on the google!)

And now, back to non-shrewish matters:

The Grey Lady ran a riveting story about Theresa Sullivan’s dismissal and re-missal as president of the University of Virginia.

I encourage all my higher-ed-curious readers to make time for the whole article. Andrew Rice managed to load all of higher ed’s current woes into this one story, which seems to be a harbinger for our future. A future in which the new higher ed culture wars are between corporate-style administrators and academic-style faculty and students.

Which side will win the future?

Theresa Sullivan is a real person, not a symbol. But still. She’s kind of a symbol.

Here’s the short version of how Sullivan was fired and re-hired:

  • The university board is composed of major political donors who are given the post in reward for their donations and service. So they’re hedge fund managers and the like. High-powered execs who see the world in terms of business problems they can solve businessly.
  • Higher ed. It’s going through some changes. Kind of like puberty, or maybe middle age. If middle age employed millions of people across skill levels and was responsible for professionally and socially credentialing for the entire nation.
  • The board wanted fast FAST! solutions from their new president. They especially wanted to solve budget problems by embracing the disruptive technology-based business of massive online courses. Because disrupting an industry is great business.
  • Thus launched a series of backdoor meetings to oust Sullivan, then another series of backdoor meetings to reinstate her.
  • Cue egg on the face of the entire university. The size the paper towel to wipe it off? About the size of all the issues of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, taped end to end.

Some salient points from Rice’s article about this new culture war:

While many veteran professors roll their eyes at predictions that online learning will transform the structure of universities, to certain segments of the donor community—the Wall Street and Aspen Institute types—higher education looks like another hidebound industry awaiting creative destruction.

In many university environments, faculty (and activist students) feel profoundly disengaged from the administration. Perhaps because of cultural differences. Perhaps philosophical differences, like this, about how to run this particular kind of institution. There’s certainly a culture of corporatization—by which I mean anything from “make it more like a business!” to relying on private money in the wake of massive public defunding—that many faculty feel is corrosive to the project of teaching and research that they are go#$)(*#$)(#*mmed lucky to be able to do.

For example, former president James Koch noted the cultural differences between the board and Sullivan, who became proxy for UVA faculty because of the imbroglio.

“[The board] looked around and they said ‘There’s a revolution going on in higher education. They thought that the people in Charlottesville were not responding.”

And, delightfully,

“This board comes predominantly from the corporate sector, and they were not used to dealing with people who have academic tenure and can say whatever they want…. They are used to being able to fire people who do that.”

I may be using slightly exploitative rhetoric here, with my “culture war” language. Maybe these types of administrators—the faculty, the corporate board members and executives, plus a third with higher ed administration degrees and careers—will be more like a parliament of distinct but cooperative parties. Ruling benevolently with students and university laborers at the forefront of their decision making.

Or maybe we’ll go full throttle Terminator on the whole enterprise.

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