Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Update on the UVA conflict

In my post Sunday, I expressed pessimism about the University of Virginia faculty's likelihood of prevailing against its governing board. I'm delighted to report that I was mistaken. Yesterday, under orders of the Governor of Virginia to "resolve" the situation that day or resign en masse, the board reinstated the university's president.

An interesting aspect of this situation that I may not have mentioned is that the president, Teresa Sullivan, began her career as an academic rather than an administrator. Although this used to be standard for university presidents, in the 21st century, it mostly isn't. Sure, mid-level administrators like deans still tend to also be faculty, but at the upper echelons, they're mostly people trained as managers. And of course that has a lot to do with the vast shift, beginning in the 1980s, in the values determining policy in higher education. All the academics of my acquaintance began revolting against business-speak when it first appeared in the 1980s, but they seem to have been helpless in preventing the imposition of the business model.

Reporting Sullivan's reinstatement, Time warns in its headline "But Colleges Face More Drama Ahead." It then presents three key issues without providing a reasonably complex context that would give a less than warped view of what is involved. These unhelpfully simplified issues are: (1) Should universities be run as businesses by CEOs or by faculty when, as the article claims "colleges need business acumen at the top to take quicker, more decisive action than is typical of academia, move more responsively to changes in the marketplace and balance budgets." (2) "One of the more contentions issues that emerged in the Sullivan saga was uncertainty over how higher education is being altered by the rise of MOOCs, or massively open online courses." The article invokes online courses at Harvard-- but fails to mention online diploma mills like Phoenix University, which is the model the key board member was eager to emulate. Nor does it mention all the statistical exposes of how poorly students are served by such places. (3) "Rising costs for students. Over the past year, state funding for higher education has declined by nearly 8%." Not just the past year, but the past two decades. No mention of why this is. And worst of all? The assumption of the article is that this is not a remediable situation. And certainly no mention that at many universities the division of the budget has shifted to insecure positions and low salaries for almost half of the faculty and the most valuable (but least valued by high-level administrators) staff members and enormous, bloated compensation for administrators, athletics programs, and public relations firms.

The Washington Post has a piece of analysis by Susan Svrgula on"the lessons" that can be drawn from "the episode." These mainly seem to be of the order of managing public (including student and faculty) opinion and perception. "Some experts think the final decision was lousy: 'It will undermine public university governance for decades to come,' said Sheldon Steinbach, a higher-education lawyer. 'Public university trustees could be viewed as gutless political appointees who would succumb to pressure when harnessed by faculty and outside influences that perhaps don’t understand the nuances of a given situation.'"

In short, mainstream news venues seem determined not to understand what was and continues to be at stake for real people vis-a-vis higher education.

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