The post-mortem continues on the two weeks of turmoil that included the abrupt forced resignation and the equally abrupt reinstatement of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan. Everyone on all sides of the dispute over Sullivan's ousting seems to agree that the Board of Visitors, UVa's trustees, behaved secretively, discourteously, and ham-handedly when it handed Sullivan her walking papers on June 10. Everyone seemed to be relieved when the board voted unanimously on June 26 to invite her back, and that Sullivan and her chief opponent on the board, UVa rector Helen Dragas, have pledged to work together in unity (everyone, that is, except for some diehard radicals on the faculty who were hoping to see Dragas and the rest of the board summarily canned).
But was the board justified in pursuing some sort of urgent action over Sullivan's dilatory-seeming leadership, given UVa's ever-escalating tuition and apparent inability to control its budget? Or were the board members, Virginia businesspeople with no experience in academia, so entranced by such Dilbert-esque buzz-phrases as "strategic dynamism" (a phrase that appears that they rumoredly wanted to get rid of the classics department at a university founded by the classics-trained Thomas Jefferson? A department whose annual budget is $1 million, a number that sounds large but represents only a tiny fraction of the $2.6 billion that UVa spends annually? Did the board ignore--or misunderstand--some of the genuine problems that UVa and many other prestigious public universities face, such as the lack of a well-defined liberal-arts core curriculum for undergraduates that might include an understanding of the ancient Western world whose literature, art, and intellectual traditions form the underpinnings of Western modernity?
The rumor about closing down the classics department--which also included the proposed jettisoning of UVa's German department--formed the basis of a scathing conservative critique of the Board of Visitors' actions by James Ceaser, a political science professor at UVa who writes frequently for conservative publications such as the Weekly Standard. Speaking at a June 28 panel titled "What would Jefferson Do?" sponsored by the Hudson Institute in Washington, Ceaser asked, "Why would any conservative identify with the board's position?" He continued: "The whole conservative idea of an education is based on a grounding in the liberal arts and the ability to exercise good citizenship--civic education before global education. The Board of Visitors looked indifferent to the liberal arts. Every conservative faculty I know was opposed to the board's decision. They took President Sullivan's side. There were questions that were never asked, such as: 'What is a university supposed to be?' And 'What is our University of Virginia supposed to be? What makes it special?"
David Breneman, an economics professor at UVa specializing in the economics of education and public policy, took a similar stance: "The board seemed to be all about 'strategic dynamism" versus going back to basics, like writing. Students need a dedicated writing course, not 'writing across the curriculum,'" he said. (UVa requires its students to take freshman composition, but it is easy to get out of the requirement, and most of the composition courses themselves have been turned by their instructors into "theme" seminars centered around popular culture, such as the " "GaGa for Gaga: Sex, Gender, and Identity" class that fulfilled the freshman writing requirement in the spring of 2011). "Students need a course that teaches them the mechanics of writing, measured by testing and assessing," said Breneman. "I don't agree with Stanley Fish on much, but this is something that he's been urging, too."
The conservative critiques from Ceaser and Breneman ensured that the third panel member, Michael Poliakoff of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the sole supporter of the board's firing of Sullivan, would have a difficult task ahead of him as devil's advocate. Poliakoff, who holds a doctorate in classical studies from the University of Michigan and was recently vice president for academic affairs and research at the University of Colorado, bravely took head-on the UVa board's alleged assault on classics and German. He described them as "imperiled programs.' During the 2010-2011 academic year, for example, he said, the department graduated only two German majors and awarded one master's degree and two doctoral degrees in German--all with a faculty of fifteen people. The classics department fared a little better that academic year, with eighteen bachelor's degrees in classics, no master's degrees, and three doctorates, drawing on the talents of eleven faculty members. "German programs are endangered everywhere in the country because their enrollment is low," said Poliakoff, pointing to a wave of recent closings or planned closings of German departments, the most notorious being the University of Southern California's shutting down its German program in 2008. Poliakoff suggested that the board might have been thinking about, as an alternative to shutdowns, consolidating its German and classics programs departments with those at other nearby universities. He cited as an example the joint German program that Duke University operates in conjunction with the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
Poliakoff speculated that Sullivan's problems with the UVa board lay less in what she had included in a strategic plan that she submitted on May 12 than in what she had left out. "UVa's budget increased 38 percent from 2004 to 2010," he pointed out, and Sullivan's latest budget includes a 4.2 percent increase in spending. "There was an opportunity for transformation that was missed," he said. "There's the academic year, based on the agrarian calendar with its long summer vacation, there are expansive laboratory facilities that are underused, there are underused buildings, there's the two-courses-per-semester teaching load for professors that's untenable."
"Sometimes impatience is a good thing," Poliakoff said of the UVa board. "For students faced with constant tuition increases the situation is urgent. We don't have a lot of time."
Poliakoff obviously couldn't persuade Ceaser and Breneman, but all three agreed that a top priority for U.Va., one to which its board perhaps paid insufficient attention, was to do something about the loosey-goosey undergraduate curriculum at UVa that would have shocked the rigorously educated Thomas Jefferson. "Some students haven't read a single serious text in all four years," said Ceaser.