By James M. Patterson
By any ordinary standard, Teresa Sullivan is the kind of university president conservatives love to hate. In 2010, after the Board of Visitors unanimously elected her the first female president of the University of Virginia, one of her first acts was to endorse and publish the UVA Diversity Council's statement expressing commitment in--what else?--diversity. Sullivan had co-authored two books on middle-class debt with none other than Elizabeth Warren, who famously exploited informal racial quotas at prestigious academic institutions by falsely claiming Native American ancestry on the sole basis of her high cheekbones. In short, Sullivan appeared as a diversity hire interested only in campus diversity at UVA and who has worked with another diversity hire to produce diversity scholarship. It is as if Sullivan was not born but rather fashioned out of the politically correct clichés that pass as serious discussion in university administrative circles.
So when the UVA Board of Visitors suddenly forced her departure, most conservatives outside the University of Virginia--such as those writing at the Wall Street Journal, the Pope Center, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni--seemed to feel validated and not a little schadenfreude. They used the occasion to endorse the rationale for taking education online and empowering other boards to consider the same action.
Then why did conservatives at UVA defend Sullivan and call
for her reinstatement? The answer is that conservatives actually disagree
profoundly on what the true problem is in higher education. Are universities
bloated institutions where overpaid, underworked faculty spout au courant Leftist platitudes to
student-admirers then publish them in obscure journals?
No, they are institutions that pass on the best traditions in Western Civilization. Why else would conservative scholars participate in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute or the Liberty Fund? Forgotten in the hype to cut costs through online education is the crucial socializing function the university provides undergraduates in the pursuit of life-long learning. Conservative faculty at the University of Virginia understood this, and they opposed Sullivan's ouster on those grounds, not to protect unearned privileges hoarded up by tenured radicals. Those who offer online education as the last great hope should temper futurist visions with cool traditions found in liberal arts education. They should look past the "creative destruction" of Joseph Schumpeter and focus on the words of Edmund Burke, "men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters."
Economies of Scale
vs. a Place of Learning
Three major university figures conspired to oust Sullivan. They were Helen Dragas, Rector of the Board of Visitors; Mark Kington; and Peter Kiernan, the now former chair of the Darden School Foundation Board (Darden is UVA's highly successful and prestigious MBA program, hence highly influential in university affairs). All three are alumni, and Kington and Kiernan are also big UVA donors. Considering how little public funding UVA currently receives, donors have greater sway over university affairs compared to other, better-funded public universities.
Last October, with their combined authority and influence, Dragas, Kington, and Kiernan started persuading other members of the Board of Visitors that Sullivan was not doing enough to cope with two economic realities: rapid technological change in the form of online courses and ever-increasing cuts in public funding. For the Rector and her fellow conspirators, the two realities worked together. The way to solve the problem of financial constraints required simply expanding online course offerings. Their hope was that online curriculum would finally solve the "scaling" problem from which higher education has long suffered.
The problem of scale refers to how many industries, unlike higher education, have used technology to make it cheaper to produce a larger quantity of goods (drill for more oil faster, assemble more cars more quickly) or faster rate of service (move more goods to markets more quickly).
Universities have resisted an increase in scale because of the artisanal nature of education. Professors spend years in graduate school passing qualifying exams and doing dissertation work to master a small field. To teach students about that field requires placing an upward limit on how many students are in the class at a time. Full-time faculty are very expensive, yet universities must retain them to preserve the school's prestige, even as the full-time faculty actually teach fewer and fewer students.
Hence, universities have increased reliance on contingency faculty to accommodate the increasing demand for college education. The contingency faculty are an added personnel cost for which students pay through ever increasing tuition, but students are less and less able to pay higher tuition. To compensate, students take out loans, and the rate of increase in student debt is unsustainable. Put simply, the input of time, money, and talent into a university produces too small of an output of graduates. The system is just too inefficient and on a path to insolvency or, worse, a burst bubble of artificial demand.
Dragas, Kington, and Kiernan hoped that online courses could finally resolve the problem of scale in education. Online courses could reach thousands of students at once, hence increasing the scale at which UVA could educate students. If fewer professors could teach more students at once, the university could drastically reduce costs on personnel while increasing its reach. With expanded reach, tuition could come down even as margins from tuition go up. Even if margins held steady, the sheer volume of students would increase revenue, compensating for the lack of state funding. In other words, scale at last!
Online education appears to provide the creative destruction
in higher education. The creative side--devising online courses for a new more
massive audience--looked promising for saving money, but the destructive side
was perhaps more gratifying. The creation of online classes meant destroying
inefficient programs and professors. Finally, professors would be put back to
work. No longer able to treat contingency faculty as what Rick O'Donnell called
"sherpas," full time faculty, or "dodgers and coasters," would have to teach
their full teaching loads at potentially the same or lower salaries. After all,
who doesn't remember some lazy Marxist using each lecture to relive their glory
days of worker strikes or the Summer of Love, while flunking anyone who didn't
toe the party line? Some departments could even be shuttered forever, as the
university became more responsive to student instead of faculty demands.
Dragas, Kington, and Kiernan apparently were already eyeing the Classics and
the German Departments for closure.
The Constant Conversations on Campus
And here is where the Edmund Burke in every conservative winces in pain. For those who see the university as a primary institution for handing down the best traditions of Western Civilization, online courses are an anathema. The university is more than a would-be online degree manufacturer with timed online exams testing skills like memorization and cheating strategies; it is a place of learning. As a "place," the University of Virginia has many such traditions that link current students to alumni, both students and alumni to their instructors and what they taught, and all of them to the larger purpose set forth by Thomas Jefferson in 1819. Even for Jefferson, place mattered, since the original grounds sit on property purchased from fellow Founding Father James Monroe and because Jefferson could see the university from his home at Monticello. Monroe and Jefferson, along with James Madison, formed the original Board of Visitors that oversaw a public university informing the people of Virginia in the Western tradition. Indeed, Jefferson designed the original Central Grounds itself as a place itself to reflect learning on types of architecture and geometry built into Pavilions where some professors then lived and, still do, to this day.
As for learning, those who believe it begins and ends in the classroom are sorely mistaken. The University of Virginia still retains enough of its liberal arts heritage to feature small courses where conversations about assigned readings spill into hallways, offices, coffee shops, and bars. Some of the oldest student associations actually formalized these conversations, such as the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, in which probationary members must present creative writing, an argumentative speech, or a debate with a full member to prove one's worthiness to join. If anything, the problem at the University of Virginia is that these conversations are too infrequent now, as professors respond to pressures to publish rather than teach; yet online courses would effectively preclude the periods of extended discussions course lectures are meant to start and continue for the rest of the student's life.
Conservative faculty at UVA, such as James W. Ceaser and Kenneth G. Elzinga, experience it as a place of learning every day, and, hence, they counted as some of the most outspoken critics of the Board of Visitors. In his June 22 Washington Post op-ed, Ceaser defended the German and Classics Departments by quoting Jefferson, saying that they were part of an education that generates "habits of application, of order, and the love of virtue." Ceaser concluded, "There are financial bottom lines, and then there are academic ones." In other words, how much money must one save to justify eschewing love of virtue?
Elizinga went even farther in a speech last Sunday saying that while was "no fan of collective solutions to any problems," he was willing to make an exception for the rally to reinstate Sullivan as "an act of atonement." For what sin should the Board atone? He meant not the sin fumbling of Sullivan's ouster but the denial of the university's foundational purpose in providing a liberal arts education.
As the Revolution Unraveled
With Sullivan's reinstatement on Tuesday, Burke defeated Schumpeter, at least for now. Indeed, the problem of virtue dogged Dragas, Kington, and Kiernan throughout their attempted coup. Appointed in large part because of their donations to Virginia governor campaigns and to UVA itself, the three were the modern-day equivalent to "princes by fortune," and they lived up to Machiavelli's description of how poorly these princes govern.
Dragas forced Sullivan's resignation on June 8, and Sullivan announced it on June 10, after students and many faculty had left for the summer. For universities, it was the equivalent of a White House "Friday news dump," in which an administration tries to bury bad news when the public is paying the least attention. Dragas held an emergency meeting of questionable legality with Kington and a third member of the Board of Visitors to accept Sullivan's resignation. Kiernan had the most amusing failure, perhaps not of virtue or order, but of application. In a June 10 email, seeking to console board members on the Darden School Foundation, he explained his intimate role in Sullivan's removal and how Dragas had "things well in hand" and described their efforts as "strategic dynamism," a Gordon Gecko phrase par excellence. Unfortunately, he used the "reply all" feature to a huge alumni mailing list instead of directly sending it only to his fellow Foundation directors, thereby leaking the entire conspiracy. Needless to say, the email made it to the press by June 12, and Kiernan stepped down from his position as Director of the Darden Foundation soon after.
When facing increasing headwinds by June 19, Kington abandoned ship, resigning his position on the Board. "University Professors," the highest ranked faculty at UVA, began to rebel. Larry Sabato helped foment outrage on Twitter, and two of the university's most decorated engineers, the husband-wife team of William Wulf and Anita Jones, quit their positions. In response, Dragas shunned the Faculty Senate, held Board of Visitors meetings in closed session, and generally carried on like a guilty person. Kington's departure changed the numbers game, creating a potential a pro-Sullivan majority on the Board. On June 22nd, Governor Robert McDonnell threatened to fire the entire Board if they could not resolve the issue once and for all. Rather than expose divisions, the Board of Visitors decided to vote unanimously on Sullivan's reinstatement.
Minding the Campus's own John S. Rosenberg, the day before Sullivan was reinstated, compared Dragas to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Walker recently survived a recall election started by public employee unions to protect their perks and privileges, just as, Rosenberg argues, the university faculty wished to preserve their own. Ironically, now reinstated, Sullivan, not Dragas, resembles Walker by winning her own recall election. Sullivan has reclaimed her presidency at the University of Virginia as an unqualified celebrity and with moral authority equaled only by Jefferson and Walker himself--so much so that she embraced Dragas following the vote to reinstate and then gave a most gracious speech to the crowd assembled outside the Rotunda where the meeting had been held. What enabled such an easy and celebrated return was Sullivan's public tact and reserve in the face of an unwarranted attack on her. She always showed prudence, especially by refusing to make negative or desperate statements and, instead, let the larger university community make her case for her. The contrast to the public humiliation of the conspirators was profound.
For this reason, above all, Sullivan's reinstatement is more real and potentially more revolutionary than when she took over in 2010. Her entrance then was barely felt besides the diversity talk. She now has the full consent of the faculty and student body to make what financial changes are necessary to preserve its traditions. Her first act as newly reinstated president was to sing the very old (written in 1895 or 1922, depending on who you ask), very traditional "Good Ol' Song." Arm and arm with undergraduates, she bellowed the words with them. She outdid many of the faculty in the audience, who hummed the tune but clearly did not know the words.
It is worth pointing out that Sullivan's reinstatement has not actually solved the very real problems the University of Virginia and other public universities face, and these problems are much more serious than diversity statements. Rather, the whole Sullivan affair points to the need to make the case for the university as a place of learning in the Western tradition. University presidents and faculty must simply not demand independence from Board interference, as if they are obviously entitled to it. They must demonstrate that they deserve their independence. Sullivan should consider a renewed emphasis on faculty teaching not merely their recent research or large, shallow survey courses. Instead, they should spend more time in small intense courses that demonstrate the value of learning itself and acting as role models for posing difficult questions and pursuing rigorous methods for answering them. Going back to the way things were before Dragas attempted a revolution only ensures that another, possibly more capable and united Board of Visitors might make a stronger case for doing away with publicly funded liberal arts education in Virginia altogether.
According to Alexis de Tocqueville, "In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end." As Dragas discovered the truth of this, she constructed quite a beauty of an ending, despite herself.
James M. Patterson is a recent Ph.D. from the University of Virginia Department of Politics, where he wrote his dissertation on the role of religious leaders in American twentieth century politics. He currently works as an adjunct at UVa and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.