Making Sense Of Upheavals At University Of Virginia
MR. KOJO NNAMDI
Political intrigue doesn't often visit a place like the University of Virginia. But for the last two weeks, the campus in Charlottesville has been in the midst of a very public, very surreal power struggle over the future of Virginia's flagship university. First, news emerged that the school's popular president, Teresa Sullivan, had resigned under pressure from the university's Board of Visitors, a governing body made up of wealthy alumni appointed by the governor.
MR. KOJO NNAMDI
Then it became clear she'd been ousted with virtually no notice after a closed-door meeting and no formal vote. Then came the backlash from the university faculty, alumni, and broader community, leaked emails filled with business school jargon, and, finally, an ultimatum from the Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, mop this mess up by Tuesday or else.
MR. KOJO NNAMDI
The story is filled with a lot of out-sized personalities and charges of bad faith, but the disagreements are grounded in very substantive questions about the future of public higher education. And joining us to discuss it is Jack Stripling, senior reporter with the Chronicle of Higher Education. Jack, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. JACK STRIPLING
Thanks for having me.
Also joining us from the studios of With Good Reason in Charlottesville, Va., is Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor and chair in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. He also teaches at the UVA Law School. Siva, thank you very much for joining us.
PROF. SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN
Oh, it's my pleasure.
You can join the conversation yourself by calling 800-433-8850. For two weeks, this university has been in the midst of a very public fight over its direction and its identity. From the moment the news hit the public, the story has gotten, it seems, weirder and weirder, resignations, mass rallies, leaked emails and now an ultimatum from the governor. What's going on in Charlottesville, Jack Stripling?
Well, it's been an interesting couple weeks, to say the least. I think that I and most other people who follow higher education, if you had have asked which president might not make it through the summer, you wouldn't have said Teresa Sullivan. This is a person who came into the university with a pretty impeccable resume. She had been provost, the second in command at Michigan. And before that, she'd spent more than 20 years in the Texas system. So she came in a highly credential person that, by all accounts among faculty, seemed to be doing a pretty good job.
Two years within life of a normal job may seem like a long time, but within the life of the presidency, it's really a blink of an eye. And so for her to be forced out in the way she was in such a sudden manner is really a break from the traditions of higher education. I think that's what started the intense reaction, the story, what followed from that was, as you've alluded to, this larger discussion about the future of public universities, the future of higher education which is very much embedded in the board's rationale for forcing her out.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, after the ouster happened, the UVA student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, obtained emails sent between some of the members of the Board of Visitors. Those emails were full of references to high-tech innovation, but they were also full of business school jargon that was quickly ridiculed across the media. You recently wrote an article describing this whole process as the triumph of MBA mumblespeak. Talk about that. And exactly what is strategic dynamism?
Well, you know, the members of the Board of Visitors who were responsible for this backroom deal, this series of manipulations and machinations that were done under the cover of darkness with real duplicity acted, based on these emails, on the shallowest of information. First of all, they assumed that the University of Virginia must radically rebuild itself, first be dismantled and then rebuilt along the lines of MBA thinking, you know, sort of the -- the sort of thinking that is guided by spreadsheets with all the depth of an excellent PowerPoint presentation.
And we see that clearly in the emails not only from the rector and the vice rector but also from some of the supporters of this who are wealthy alums, just a handful, who have decided to sort of exact their vision of the world on a much -- on a very complex, diverse and publicly minded institution. And so the real tragedy here is that we had seen these storm clouds gathering around public higher education for a number of years. But, as Jack said, we really never thought the University of Virginia would be ground zero for this sort of blatant, manipulative attack.
You know, we're in a situation now where we not only have to confront the very short-term issues. So as we've had information come out, the one thing we don't have is any sort of indication that President Sullivan underperformed in any measurable way. In fact, fundraising, one of her chief duties, under President Sullivan is up 15.6 percent in two years. She has managed to unify disparate elements of the university, different stakeholders. She is tremendously popular among alumni, among students and, of course, universally popular among faculty.
She is the right person to lead a very diverse organization into some serious challenges in the 21st century. One of the things we found as we looked at all these emails from the rector and the vice rector is they had been trading links to sort of the shallowest of articles, op-ed pieces in various newspapers and so forth as sort of their vision of research on things like online education. At no point did they ask me or anybody else in the faculty, so what's going on at UVA with online education?
What's going on with digital initiatives? Are we doing it right? Can we do it better? Had they just approached us, we would've said, you know what, here's what we're doing. Here's what we're thinking about doing. Here's the depth of research we have at our fingertips that guides us through these challenges because at the University of Virginia, we want to be -- to continue to be at the forefront of innovation as we have been for 20 years, but we don't want to do it foolishly and recklessly. Apparently, that wasn't a good enough approach.
800-433-8850. Are you a graduate of UVA? Have you been -- how have you been interpreting the recent drama in Charlottesville? Call us at 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Jack, this entire process has created a lot of bad blood, and that may have distracted from the fact that there are very real, very substantive and good faith disagreements here about how schools like UVA need to evolve in today's academic and economic environment.
On a certain level, one of the major questions is what it means to be a public institution, especially when states don't really pay that much into the schools these days and when a school like UVA is trying to compete with schools like Harvard or MIT.
Well, you're right. I mean, that's a huge subtext to the story. And I'm sure that Siva means when they're reading all the shallow stuff that he would exclude the Chronicle of Higher Education, where I write, because that was one of the things they were reading. But outside of that, I do understand the faculty assessment that there's a sense that the board was taking a cursory view of what's happening in the world relative to online education and was not diving deep into the literature, at least from what we see in these emails, to see what's going on.
Relative to your question about public universities, I mean, this is an old conversation within public higher education, particularly at flagship institutions that have accumulated a lot of independent wealth. The University of Virginia's endowment, I think, is around $5 billion. It makes it one of the wealthiest public institutions in the country. And as a result of that, it's not uncommon to hear questions about whether its public mission is different because of the fact that it is within -- because it has some independent means, and we've seen this play out across the country.
In the last couple of years, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, for instance, there was a big fight between Biddy Martin, who is the chancellor there, and the system -- her view that perhaps the flagship campus ought to break off from the system because it was so different. It had such a different kind of revenue stream than other institutions. We saw the same thing happen at the University of Oregon, where Richard Lariviere tried to break off from the system there under the same case. Hey, we're different. We don't take as much money from the state.
We ought to be allowed to operate more independently. What you push up against, however, is that all of the infrastructure that is ever put in place that allows an institution to become -- to become as independent as a place like Virginia was built by taxpayers. And, obviously, I don't have to tell you, a prominent taxpayer of Virginia...
...Thomas Jefferson had a lot to do with putting that institution on the road in the path that it's on now. So you're always going to hear pushback, even if UVA is in a privileged position relative to other public institutions in terms of its wealth. How it got there, there's no question that a lot of public support made that happen.
Well, joining us now by telephone is another former prominent student at the University of Virginia. He is former governor of the commonwealth of Virginia, Jim Gilmore. Both he and his wife are UVA alums. He joins us by telephone. Gov. Gilmore, thank you for joining us.
GOV. JAMES GILMORE III
Thank you, Kojo, very much. I enjoyed listening to that.
You come at this from a unique perspective as a UVA grad, but also as someone who has appointed people to serve on the Board of Visitors for the university. What was your reaction to this story?
Well, first of all, I want to address very quickly the last comment. I absolutely and valiantly agree with what was just said by the last speaker. I think that there has been a dangerous move over the last several years by all the flagship universities in Virginia to almost hint that they'd really like to leave the commonwealth and go private like Harvard or Yale. And I come at this from entirely different direction. As governor, I represent the taxpayers, the citizens of Virginia who own this university. And they have built it.
Their money has built it. Thomas Jefferson established it. And it play -- I believe higher education plays a central policy role for the people of Virginia. And the idea of jacking it up and putting it on a car and driving it away some place for private benefit is anathema to me. And I really worry about that. Secondly, I think we ought to not look at public support just in terms of percentage. If you think about it analytically, the people of Virginia have been pouring money into this school and all the other 15 universities in Virginia for, well, hundreds of years.
And then that all of a sudden they say, well, we're going to jack our budget up to $1 trillion and, you know, you only went up 10 percent this year so you're not keeping up is kind of disingenuous. And it's in a way of basically demeaning the contributions the taxpayers have made to these schools, well, for generation to generations. When I was the governor, I was concerned about the culture of higher education in Virginia and felt that they were actually sort of drifting away from their state mission.
And the college president seemed to be autonomous. They seem to not really listen to much of anybody else. I felt that it needed to be a culture change. And what I did as governor was I said, look, we're going to change this. We're going to make the boards genuine oversight boards. And people came to me, and they said, you know, baloney, the boards are not qualified. They're, you know, rich people and politicians. They shouldn't be overseeing boards.
You ought to let the academy run itself. You ought to let the president be autonomous and, you know, let the members of the board do what they're supposed to do, which is come to the school and sit in the football box and eat meatballs or, you know, or at best, become fundraisers for the colleges. I rejected that completely.
And every member of every board of every public institution in Virginia -- and as I said, there are 15, counting the two-year college. I visited with and personally interviewed every person and said to them, I don't want you to be partisan. I don't want you to be political, and I certainly don't want you to be adversarial. But I demand that you serve an actual oversight role as a -- like a board of a corporation would -- directors on behalf of the shareholders. And in this particular case, the shareholders are the taxpayers of Virginia.
And I'm concerned about this incident at UVA because this board has behaved -- and so as I said (unintelligible) said superficially and secretively, that they may have damaged really the reputation of the board to be able to govern. And I think they must govern. And I wrote an op-ed piece to that effect, which was just published yesterday in the Charlottesville Daily Progress.
Do you think that Gov. Bob McDonnell's intervention was appropriate given that the campus is in upheaval, that he has given the Board of Visitors an ultimatum, you either get this right by Tuesday or everybody is gone?
You know, I don't know what -- I don't know if he can do that or not. I always believed -- I think the law says that you can't remove board members. I actually believe that is a flaw in the law. My experience was that I interviewed all of these board members. I sent them to the schools, and they promptly went native because the governor cannot recall all of them. I think this governor is taking the position that the UVA board has behaved in such a negligent manner that they can be removed for cause.
I never was in that position where, you know, if people, frankly, just got kind of casual and deferred everything to the president, that that rose to the level of being removed for cause. But there's been such an uproar over this, there's been so much secretiveness, there's been so much criticism and almost rebellion in Charlottesville over this that the governor may very well be able to take the position that the board has behaved in a negligent and malfeasance type of position, and he can remove them. I think that's debatable. But one thing the governor is saying is that it has to get straight.
We're all very, very proud of our flagship university. It's one of the greatest institutions in the nation and indeed the world. We want it to get better. And I think that what we're really doing is we're not yet fully engaging appropriately in the discussion of what it takes to really have the highest quality institution in the 21st century. And I'm afraid that the board, because of their misconduct, has sort of set that back a little bit.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, I hear you wanting to say something.
Yeah. If I may, as a faculty member at the University of Virginia, I thank you so much for all that you've said here and in all your other statements. I think you've really centered on the issue here. When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, he didn't name it after himself. Look, you know, John Harvard's name is on Harvard, Elihu Yale's on Yale, Ezra Cornell's on Cornell.
This is the University of Virginia. It is a university devoted to serving not only the state in terms of its short-term interests, but serving the vision of the state, making sure that we have leaders and dreamers of tomorrow, making sure that we understand hundreds of years of history. And that's why he created this special space. And your approach to this, I think, is thoroughly appropriate.
Because we are the University of Virginia -- remember, I'm not just a faculty member of the university. I'm a taxpayer in the state of Virginia. I'm a voter. I want my daughter to go to the University of Virginia, and, hopefully, she'll get the grades enough to get in 'cause it's pretty tough these days, you know? And I see this as a duty to the people of the state. And when I go to work every day, I'm proud that I work for the people of the state.
And that's why I'm so heartbroken by this secretive act by the board because they seem to be taking their ideology as the answer to everything. Instead of engaging the people of the state in this decision about where the university should be going, they hijacked it in the middle of the night. I think this is a great opportunity, and I really welcome a big conversation about what universities should be doing in Virginia.
We know that we have some great ones, some amazing ones, and each one of them serves a different need, right? Virginia Tech is one of the premier technological engineering, agricultural research universities in the country, and it's very different from the University of Virginia. UVA is different from George Mason. George Mason is different from William & Mary. And we've got -- you know, university -- I mean -- and James Madison is different, and VCU is different.
And we have such a rich and diverse array of top-notch institutions. The one thing they all need is not only public support in terms of dollars and cents, which we're all desperate for, but we need a sense of public investment, public support. We need to -- everyone in the state -- to recognize that we don't just print diplomas. We actually produce knowledge. We actually...
...support people in their creating endeavors and creating technologies.
I'm running out of time in this segment. But, Gov. Gilmore, you seem to be suggesting that, in a way, the Board of Visitors may have done the commonwealth of Virginia a favor because it certainly has kicked off this discussion about exactly what the University of Virginia should be going into the future, even though it may have kicked it off in the worst possible way.
Yes. I think it could be an advantage, and I agree once again with our faculty member who just spoke. One caveat that I have, which I published yesterday, I still adamantly believe that the schools cannot just run themselves. There has to be some oversight. Well, the legislature doesn't do it. The governor is too busy to do it. It's got to be the Board of Visitors.
And now just because the Board of Visitors has to play that role doesn't mean everything they do is right, and I think we're all in agreement that everything they did here was wrong. But if we conclude that the Boards of Visitors are incapable of governing, then I'm not sure who replaces that. I adamantly believe the boards must govern the university in terms of oversight and policy, not micromanaging, by the way.
The CEO's job is the job of the president of the university, with the work of the faculty. But they cannot be alone and autonomous on that. The Board of Visitors must represent the taxpayers of Virginia and provide policy guidance. And if we kick off a discussion now of what it takes to be great in the 21st century in higher education, then, you know, something good can come out of this. But I caution about just throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Got to take a break at this point. Gov. Gilmore, thank you so much for joining us. Jim Gilmore is a former governor of the commonwealth of Virginia. He and his wife are both UVA alums. Jim Gilmore, thank you for joining us.
Thank you, Kojo. I appreciate the opportunity.
We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation. If you're on the phone, stay there. The lines are busy. If you'd like to get in touch with us, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send a tweet @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Welcome back. We're talking about the upheaval at the University of Virginia with Siva Vaidhyanathan. He is a professor and chair in the Department of Media Studies at UVA. He also teaches at the law school. He joins us from the studios of With Good Reason in Charlottesville, Va. Jack Stripling is a senior reporter with the Chronicle of Higher Education. I'd like to go directly to the phones and talk with Charles in Alexandria, Va. Charles, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
Well, first of all, I would like to praise Gov. Gilmore, who has had the courage to take on the educational establishment by insisting that the boards have control over the universities. And I think that's very important. In the case of this board, everyone talks about the mistakes they've made, and I think maybe the mistakes they made are not the ones that this faculty man was talked about. Apparently, they carried on a long conversation with the president. And she finally, when the chips were down, didn't respond to their guidance, which is their right.
For -- according to their statements, they -- to respect her and to protect her reputation, they didn't get into all of those details. The president and some of her allies leaked a very damaging private analysis of the university. Putting all that aside, the most distressing thing about this is that it's clear that the current model of higher education, including the University of Virginia, is unsustainable. They've used market power to increase the cost of education beyond anything sustainable by the middle class and even by the...
You raised a very crucial question, Charles, and we don't have a great deal of time. So allow me to have both Jack and Siva respond. The model, says Charles, is unsustainable, and that is clear. And the board had to do something about that.
Yeah, I mean what's...
Allow me to have Jack go first.
What's interesting about this is that, for all of the criticism the board is taking about the manner in which they did this, they're -- it's -- every person I've talked to feels like they're raising a lot of the right questions, which are how can an institution like the University of Virginia transform to meet the challenges of the 21st century? Does that mean a deeper investment into online education? Does that mean a changing of the way that content is delivered?
The problem that I'm sure Siva will raise is there are plenty of people on UVA's campus who could speak intelligently to that. Why was this happening in a secretive conversation? The caller mentions a private analysis that was leaked to the media, which was Dr. Sullivan's memo about the strengths and weaknesses of the institution. The question that I have as a reporter who covers public universities is, why was it private in the first place?
These are major strategic discussions about a public institution and where it's headed. Why was this happening behind closed doors? I think all of the anger and frustration that's coming out of this is that universities are the types of place where this type of conversation is supposed to be happening open anyway. For some reason, the board felt that it couldn't have these open conversations about it, and so the question for the public and for the board is why.
Well, Siva, you make the argument that what we're looking at here is representative, in a way, of a values clash between wealthy philanthropists, who, I guess, are the members of the Visitors Board, and the academic community.
Well, it's not -- first of all, it doesn't include very many of that class of philanthropists. Most philanthropists who contribute to the university are quite thrilled with the work that we do, and they see the immense measurable return of it. Now, I think the caller is misinformed about a few things. First of all, there was no long-term discussion of particular things that they felt President Sullivan was failing to satisfy. This completely surprised her and everybody else. This was all done very secretly behind her back.
Secondly, the very notion of unsustainability? No. It's that under the current model, universities are not sustained. We can choose as citizens to invest in higher education because the value of higher education is tremendous, and it's really what gave us the Web browser you use and the email programs you use and firms like Google. Those all sprouted out of higher education. Let's not forget that. This is the engine of creativity and innovation in the world. And as Jack said...
But everybody agrees that the cost of education at higher -- the cost of higher education is rising at a rate that is faster than the rate of deflation.
There's a difference between the cost and the price. The rice is rising, the cost is not. In fact, universities are more efficient than ever. Before, the cost that's been rising out of control is health care, but that's for another conversation. The price has been rising because of the steady disinvestment of public dollars from higher education. The reason that tuition was much lower 10 years ago is that state's funding was so much higher. The reason that tuition is lower in some states than in other states is the difference in public funding.
The reason tuition is lower in Canada than the U.S. is the level of public funding. That is the number one issue in public higher education. If we want people to be able to afford to go to great universities, no matter where they come from, no matter what their social class is, we must recommit ourselves to making sure that public higher education remains public, publicly minded, publicly governed. As Gov. Gilmore said, we have to make sure it's accountable to the taxpayers. But we also have to make sure that we don't create universities that are quasi-public or mostly private.
And that's unfortunately where the University of Virginia has been going. With that, though, we have to understand that the University of Virginia is supported less than any other comparable university. Nearly one-third of what the state pays for -- per student in North Carolina goes to University of Virginia students. One-half of what the state pays in Maryland goes to the University of Virginia students. We are losing out to Virginia -- I'm sorry -- losing out to North Carolina and Maryland in terms of our level of state of support, and that is the fundamental cause of this.
Charles, thank you very much for your call. We put out a query using the Public Insight Network, a new tool that allows us to ask our listening community about their experiences and expertise. Everyone we spoke with brought up the word honor. Here are two alums, one from the class of 2012, the other from the class of 2002.
MS. ALEXANDRA STAEBEN
My name is Alexandra Staeben, and I graduated in May 2012. I received the email -- I think it was from the rector herself, like, the first email announcing the resignation the day it happened, and I was completely shocked. It's definitely made me more cynical about the university because honor is a huge part of what students -- of what we experience during our years there. As you probably know, we have to sign pledges all the time.
MS. ALEXANDRA STAEBEN
We sign a pledge at convocation at the start of our first year, pledging to follow the honor code. And so there's just -- there's a big culture of transparency and a big culture of student government. So we're not used to being thrown curve balls like this. You know, if you -- not everyone is involved, obviously, in how the school runs and knows a lot, but the idea that, like, if you want to be involved and you want to know what's going on, you should be able top know, you should be able to find out. And there shouldn't be this secrecy that the board has propagated.
MR. ROSS KANE
My name is Ross Kane. I am a 2002 graduate of the University of Virginia and am also in the doctoral program right now in religious studies. So in my day job, I am an Episcopal priest in Alexandria, Va. And it's (unintelligible) that honor is a big part of my surprise around all of this. And it seems to me that the virtue of honesty, first off, was lacking in the board's discussions with Sullivan.
MR. ROSS KANE
I'm a recent graduate. And as a pastor, I don't make a huge amount of money, but I do like to give back to the institution. And until some of that stuff gets sorted out, until there's more transparency with the actions of the Board of Visitors, I'll support UVA but more through programs like AccessUVA, which provides scholarships to those who -- to needy students instead of providing any money to their general fund.
MR. ROSS KANE
Also, you know, some departments who do work that I think is really vital and important and informing students of honor, you know, in departments of, like, philosophy and religious studies and departments like that that really ask some of the key moral questions that I think are part of being in the university community, you know, thinking through these hard questions of life that Jefferson did very well himself.
Those sound bites came from the Public Insight Network, a new tool that WAMU is using to tap into the expertise and background of a network of listeners. You can log on to wamu.org/pin and sign up to volunteer to offer your expertise. And you can check out the variety of responses we received from UVA alums on our webpage, kojoshow.org. Jack Stripling, we are almost out of time, but I don't know of many other public universities in which just about everyone you talk to would use the word honor in responding. Why is honor so important in this case?
Well, I mean, these people really believe this stuff, you know? I mean, I didn't go to an institution that was as steeped in tradition as the University of Virginia, but to alumni that you talk to, it matters a lot. The University of Virginia is one of the few institutions in the country that, I would say, has a real brand. And what happens when a brand is tarnished or jeopardized is people get up in arms, like you've seen at the University of Virginia.
I'd touch on another thing your commenter mentioned, which was the types of programs he wants to support, the broad liberal arts education that's so valued at the institution. John Casteen, the former president and someone I spoke with recently who had read, as others had, that classics and programs in German might be targeted by the board as vulnerable areas that were a drain on finances there. Casteen mentioned to me these board members would do well to read more of the classics to learn about hubris. So this is a place that takes the liberal arts very seriously, and it's part of its branding.
And I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Jack Stripling is a senior reporter with the Chronicle of Higher Education. Jack, thank you for joining us.
Thank you for having me.
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor and chair in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. He also teaches at the University of Virginia Law School. Siva, thank you much for joining us.
(unintelligible) Thank you.
And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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