Going to try and catch up on a lot of blogging today. I just had a horrible week-and-a-half cold that really sidelined me.
Let’s start with the University of Virginia controversy. After reading Siva Vaidhyanathan’s commentary in Slate, I got some sense of the problems with process at UVA, but I still didn’t have a clear sense of what specific issues motivated a managerial, intrusive board to pull off such a clumsy and manipulative intervention into university governance. Speculation over the weekend focused on digital infrastructure, online education and similar questions, based in part on the email from the business school board that Vaidhyanathan quoted. This didn’t make much sense to me since Virginia is an innovator in those areas already, and Sullivan was by all accounts interested in extending many of those initiatives.
Now Scott Jaschik is reporting at Inside Higher Education that the conflict between some members of the Board of Visitors and Sullivan concerned particular academic departments that the Board wanted eliminated–German and classics are the examples being mentioned.
There are many ways in which I don’t want to consider the “bigger issues” involved in this case, because that lends some legitimacy to a completely bungled case of mismanagement and poor governance. You don’t fire a president who has served for two years, has the confidence of her institution, because you don’t agree with her about the fate of a handful of academic departments or administrative offices. A board that involves itself at that level of micromanagement might as well dispense with upper administration altogether and step into that role full-time. If it’s not a full-time board serving as a de facto president, it shouldn’t involve itself in that kind of micromanagement.
The role of a board of trustees in higher education is to insure the general financial health of the institution, to diligently secure the general management and welfare of a university or college, and to shape the general strategic planning that guides its affairs. If a board decides to get involved in the affairs of a single department, office or unit on its own initiative, overriding a president or provost, there damn well better be a serious question of malfeasance or gross mismanagement involved. Deciding whether there should be German or classics or any other particular department (or whether there should be three or six or fifteen assistant deans of admissions, or anything else of this kind) without a larger deliberative process shaping those decisions in a transparent, coherent way is managerial suicide. It would be managerial suicide at a corporation, too–this is further proof that either some business leaders don’t really know jackshit about best practices in their own neck of the woods or some of them feel comfortable screwing up public institutions with practices that they’d never countenance in their own domains. (See for example the ridiculously poor return-on-investment of some of the current policy initiatives of the Florida governor’s office, run by someone who is supposed to have business acumen.)
So let’s keep things clear: in some sense, the UVA decision is the UVA decision, about nothing more than mismanagement and malfeasance. If the board had a known, visible, describable process for thinking about the relative priorities of the university in the future, well, first off, it would have a process in which it would be working with a president, upper administration and faculty about the way forward, and a small faction of that board wouldn’t have needed to scheme to get its way. If a board felt that the long-term health of the institution required making a different calculation about what programs to strengthen and which to drop, it would have been working that conversation thoroughly and transparently all along, especially at a public institution. That’s not a confrontation that arises over a few months in secret.
I’m always keen to have the bigger conversation, about what constitutes the liberal arts and why that approach is important, and how to make coherent decisions about what to have and not have under that umbrella. But it should be had separately from the UVA discussion. Bunglers aren’t entitled to protective cover.