Despite profound backlash on campus and beyond, the abrupt firing of University of Virginia Teresa Sullivan is final. In her stead, Carl Zeithaml has been named interim president after an 11-hour meeting by the Board of Visitors (which is in turn led by the rector who is a hedge fund manager and negotiated behind the scenes for Sullivan's removal). Zeithaml's specialty, it appears, is "strategic management." While the university was egregiously quiet about their reasons for firing Sullivan, who held the post for two years, it now appears they were concerned that she was not bold in her vision and did not sufficiently handle the public university with the efficiency of a business.
In the 19th century, robber barons started their own private universities when they were not satisfied with those already available. But Leland Stanford never assumed his university should be run like his railroad empire. Andrew Carnegie did not design his institute in Pittsburgh to resemble his steel company. The University of Chicago, John D. Rockefeller’s dream come true, assumed neither his stern Baptist values nor his monopolistic strategies. That’s because for all their faults, Stanford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller knew what they didn’t know.
In the 21st century, robber barons try to usurp control of established public universities to impose their will via comical management jargon and massive application of ego and hubris. At least that’s what’s been happening at one of the oldest public universities in the United States—Thomas Jefferson’s dream come true, the University of Virginia.
From the Washington Post:
The campaign to remove Sullivan began around October, the sources said. The (group brought together by the UVA rector) coalesced around a consensus that Sullivan was moving too slowly. Besides broad philosophical differences, they had at least one specific quibble: They felt Sullivan lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure (sic) academic departments in classics and German.
Sullivan herself kept quiet even as outrage built around her removal. But she did ask to speak to the Board recently. Her statement to them is available here. She said:
I can't believe UVA hasn't backed down from its ill-considered decision. There seems to be only one lonely note of dissent: the interim president was approved by a vote of 12-1. It is alarming to see the ongoing creep of business management strategies on more and more corners of our culture. To be sure, these strategies aren't inherently evil, but institutions grounded in public life, like universities, are bound by a commitment to serving a diverse citizenry and cultivating practices that have minimal space in a market-driven society: that is, their motives, worth, and therefore their structure, are different than your standard corporation. The UVA story illustrates the weird idea that there is only one worthwhile way of running an institution, discarding other practices of conflict management and democratic leadership. Also, as the Slate piece put it:
At some point in recent American history, we started assuming that if people are rich enough, they must be experts in all things. That’s why we trust Mark Zuckerberg to save Newark schools and Bill Gates to rid the world of malaria. Expertise is so 20th century.
I'm also alarmed by the reports that university departments are being measured by their ability to generate money.. It is not surprising that humanities departments -- classics, German, comparative literature -- are at risk.
I studied art history and creative writing/literature at another major public university, the University of Michigan. I get that it is a less obvious or "practical" career path. Here is the usual conversation I had when people asked what I was majoring in.
"What are you majoring in?"
"Art history and creative writing and literature."
"Will you teach?"
"No, I will write."
(skeptical raise of eyebrows) "Well, good luck with that. You know, I hear there's good money in writing speeches for politicians. And that J.K. Rowling did pretty well for herself. You should write a book like that!"
Concentrations in the humanities don't launch you in an obvious direction. It is unclear who will pay you to know the things you learn, or to think in the wide-open way you've trained your mind to work. With the burden of student loans, this is a big deal. I get that. But while its vocational path is foggy, it is a real path nonetheless. There wasn't a clear flowchart guiding my adult life -- first this step, then this step -- and now, as a self-employed writer, there is a measure of uncertainty haunting every single day of my working life. My whole life is questions, and not just because I'm a reporter. Personally and professionally, studying the humanities has been critical in making it possible, practically, to live a life that I really love, and to offer a contribution to this world that I believe is meaningful.
Said Sullivan in her statement:
I spoke to art history seniors at University of Michigan recently about how engaging deeply in that small and lively department contributed to my life as a journalist. I had a lot to say (some of which can be found here). A lot of it was slippery stuff about the ability to observe, about joy, about context and color. I also talked about the value of studying history and world culture through art: how a sculpture can come out of 1880s France, or 1910s Ghana, or Greece in fifth century B.C. -- and nowhere else. It is the particularities of a place and time that makes precious both the fact and the aesthetics of these objects.
The value of my classes in, say, African diaspora art and German Romantic art is literally unmeasurable. But it is still real. Their impact is profound and concrete.
One of my peeves these days is newbie journalists (or any journalists) believing that what we do is all about craft: it's all witty words and dramatic ledes, with a healthy dose of multimedia skills. A lot of them lock themselves in a box, mining only the familiar world: their stories are often limited to pop culture and their own life.
In fact, journalists need to know things. There needs to be substance behind our craft. (Dana Goldstein, who specializes in education reporting, has written wisely about this before.) For those of us lucky enough to find our vocation in storytelling, serving as a pivot point for how others understand the world -- this matters so much.
UPDATE #1: UVA has just seen the first of what I expect will be many faculty resignations.
UPDATE #2: Wowza: now the university's vice-rector has resigned. Also, let's hand it to the College Republicans: "...the U.Va. College Republicans released a letter they sent to McDonnell asking him to address the issue 'in-depth' and seek increased transparency and communication between the board of visitors and UVA community."