Monday, June 11, 2012

UVA's Sullivan Steps Down

With a little nudge from the University's Board of Visitors, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan resigned yesterday after not quite two years in office.  Few know, in any real detail, why Sullivan was eased out so early in her tenure, but the background noise suggests the usual headaches.

Money and its allocation form the main issues in the modern University.  Elaborate fund raising operations have grown up in the modern elite schools, a group in which UVA claims membership.  Athletic programs have profitability issues front and center.  Witness the reshuffling of athletic conferences, which is completely driven by monetary issues.  Compensation for administrators and successful fund raisers far exceed their equivalents in the private sector.  Meanwhile, the education quality at elite schools has eroded dramatically over the past four decades.  The only measure that seems to be improving in the elite schools in the US is the quality of the incoming student.  By any other measure, American universities are on the decline.

The biggest problem is that of governance.  Who should run a University?  Students, faculty, administrators, taxpayers, boards, and alumni all seem to think they should be in charge.  Typical of private foundations or state-run institutions, the "stakeholder" theory of governance is in charge, which means that no one is in charge.  Worse, there is a community of interest between students and faculty to diminish the actual effort put into education.  Faculty want to teach less and students would like more leisure time.  This conspiracy has dramatically reduced teaching hours, classroom hours, and studying time over the last few generations.

Meanwhile, numerous political agendae have invaded the University community and it's budget.  Centers have proliferated that seem to have no real purpose but to create political activism among the student body.  These centers are very expensive, are constantly expanding, and serve no real educational purpose.  Worse, many students devote their time to "activism" to the neglect of their education.  Many students graduate thinking they are headed out to perform great public service, with sociology and anthropology degrees in hand.  Who hires this group?

The burgeoning cost of higher education has created a mountain of debt for graduating seniors, and for many who never graduate.  These costs are largely the result of the shift in focus in the modern University away from education toward social activities, political activities, and the promotion of semi-professional athletic programs.  The actual education process is absurdly inexpensive, but actual educational expenses have been a declining part of University budgets since the early 1960s.

The modern University is adrift.  Technological change is coming to education, but it is not likely to be lead by a modern University, whose eyes are always in the rear view mirror.  President Sullivan, who seems to be a very nice person and well liked in the University of Virginia community, probably found herself in the cross-hairs of the various conflicts in governance that plague the modern University.  If education is no longer the goal of the modern University, then it's anybody's guess what the priorities of a modern University should be.

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