No Fig Leaves

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.

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6 Responses to No Fig Leaves

  1. MoXmas says:

    The idea that managers in business are generally competent at this sort of thing is belied by most all of the evidence I have seen working in marketing for a number of years in a variety of positions. Most managers aren’t in place long enough to care about knowledge of their space, let alone ROI that doesn’t directly correspond to them geting promoted to the next level. While I have worked with tons of managers who are exceptions to that, they tend not to work for public companies.

    Perhaps it works differently in positions, like operations, where the turnover is less, but that has not been my observation, either.

    By contrast, almost every academic I know — including my sister who works at a state school — are well-versed in every key success metric they have, from graduation rates to resource allocation to staff salary and benefits. And they consider it bizarre when I tell them how seldom I run across that in “the real world”.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think this is one of the great snake-oil myths of the last thirty years: that corporatized management in public institutions produces efficient attention to return on investment, careful use of human resources and so on. What it really produces is the ability to hide operations behind the veil of the private, shield management from accountability, and to have ‘customers’ (e.g., citizens) who have no choice but to accept the product as offered.

  3. Gavin Weaire says:

    UVa’s classics department is a very distinguished one, even among equivalent research institutions. I’ve never heard that they had any particular trouble with enrollments (an impression which the Slate article appears to confirm). I doubt that faculty salaries in classics total some astronomical sum. Bluntly, I don’t think it’s just disciplinary solidarity that suggests to me that there is sheer prejudice at work here.

  4. VL says:

    It may be far worse than “bungling”: as more info comes out about the BOV, the behind-the-scenes machinations look positively Machiavellian. And I just stumbled across this blog post, which, though written last week, seems quite astute:

    I hope some good investigative reports come out soon….

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that’s an interesting piece. I’m normally not a fan of conspiracy theories, but at the least, I think one thing that may have made David Brooks-level hucksterism irresistable to the BoV is that they all know people who are getting rich off of selling online education, whether in for-profits like Phoenix or Kaplan or in new intiatives like Coursera. You don’t have to conspire directly to operate by a rule of reciprocity–that you talk up and encourage someone else’s ventures and expect that they’ll do the same for you. It’s how dumb big-money film projects get the greenlight in Hollywood–someone’s paying off a guy who paid them off in the past.

  6. VL says:

    You’re absolutely right, the ‘rule of reciprocity’ accounts very well for the facts (in Hollywood and at UVA). What is nevertheless clear from the unfolding accounts is that these über-rich BOV members are quite a tight-knit little group, and Dragas was a busy little bee working up enough support over the pa st several months to oust Sullivan. It strikes me, in fact, that this is one reason some conspiracy theories seem so plausible: if one inhabits a small plutocracy, it’s quite likely the plutocrats are in cahoots, especially when the majority have been appointed by the same conservative governor. (The right is generally much better at closing ranks than the left.)

    Speaking of conspiracy theories, though, over at Language Log there are links to one additional, quite different conspiracy theory having to do with preventing Michael Mann (climate change scientist) from coming back to UVA to become the Kington Chair of Environmental Change ( I somehow think this was not a driving force behind Sullivan’s ouster, but I can well imagine the very conservative business types on the BOV salivating over the prospect of killing two birds with one stone. It’s swift and efficient — strategic dynamism (or is that dynamic strategism?) at its best.

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