I am just catching up with the mess at the University of Virginia. For those who haven’t heard, good summaries and commentaries can be found here, here, and here. The short story: the University’s Board of Visitors fired the University President, Teresa Sullivan, after just two years in office. A string of emails between the Board and Sullivan reveal that she was under pressure to dismantle disciplines that “couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.”
The conflation of academic value and financial solvency is deeply troubling, especially at such a wealthy institution (UVA’s $5 billion endowment is the largest of any public university in the United States). Humanities programs rarely sustain themselves financially. They always rely upon other, more profitable disciplines to survive. Moreover, the humanities have historically been regarded as instrinsically valuable. They do not need to meet any other conditions or criteria to justify their existence. Without them, you no longer have a university.
Kevin Carey’s article in the New Republic makes an important link between the global economic crisis and the corporate culture of (many) university administrations:
The UVA fiasco also illustrates how blithely states take the task of governing their public universities. No other area of major public expenditure exists at such a remove from accountability to elected officials. The 16-member Board of Visitors consists almost exclusively of wealthy businesspeople who were friends with or donors to the various Virginia governors who appointed the board. Vice Rector Kington, who resigned several days ago, served a previous term on the board after donating tens of thousands of dollars to Governor Mark Warner. Then he backed the opponent of Warner’s successor, Tim Kaine, and was kicked off. Then he donated over $100,000 to current Governor Bob McDonnell, and was reinstated. Kiernan chaired the board of the business school foundation because he donated millions of dollars to the business school. The nature of the financial transactions involved is readily apparent. (McDonnell, no profile in courage, has refused to take any action to stem the growing crisis.)
A university governed entirely by wealthy businesspeople steeped in a culture of corporate strategy memos will reflect the peculiar perspectives of the modern rich. The financialized American economy has made vast fortunes for gamblers with poor impulse control who mistake a lucky roll of the dice for intelligence and virtue. It’s not surprising that the same kind of fast-twitch thinking would lead a group of homogenous financial patrons talking among themselves to lose patience with a career higher education administrator who was insufficiently galvanized by the latest columns from Thomas Friedman and David Brooks.
The UVA Board of Visitors also wanted Sullivan to build an online education program that would compete with projects recently developed at Harvard and MIT. What the situation at UVA makes visible (and very concrete) is the link between developing online education programmes and dismantling the humanities. As exciting as new interactive technologies and online education might be for teachers interested in technology, new media, and the moving image, online education has quickly become the new must-have commodity for every institution of higher learning. If one of the world’s most esteemed and wealthy academic institutions frames online education as a way to cut costs and cut programs–rather than innovate and experiment in the classroom–the future does not look bright for the rest of us.