Virginia showdown is real deal

Virginia showdown is real deal

Campus controversy is not limited to the University of Illinois.

Those who think the UI faculty and staff have been through an emotional wringer over the past six months should consider recent events at the University of Virginia.

On June 10, the university's board of visitors made a surprise decision to fire President Teresa Sullivan. The dismissal stirred so much controversy that a civil war of sorts broke out. Ultimately, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell threatened to fire the entire 17-member board unless it took action to quell the outrage.

On Tuesday, the board not only reinstated Sullivan, but the board's chairwoman, Helen Dragas, also apologized for her ham-handed handling of the situation and voted in favor of restoring to power the woman she had just fired.

There's more at play here than just maladministration by the board.

Board members, led by Dragas, carried out their decision to fire Sullivan with maximum secrecy and minimum explanations. They offered vague platitudes about the need for change, and, only when challenged, provided anything approaching an explanation for their decision.

Behind the scenes is a controversy about the need for speed in changing the way Virginia does its academic business in light of declining state support and a new academic landscape driven by the Internet. Sullivan favored a go-slow "incremental" approach while board members, foolishly thinking they are in charge, wanted Sullivan to move faster.

University employees and faculty, naturally, favored Sullivan in that debate. They prefer traditional consensus, faculty-driven decision-making.

The question is whether that approach will succeed in the current environment.

Writing in the American Interest magazine, Walter Mead opined that "the structural problem our universities face is this: confronted with the need for sweeping, rapid changes, administrators and board have two options — and they are both bad."

Mead said rapid changes will cause "enormous upheavals; star professors will flounce off. Alumni will be offended. Waves of horrible publicity will besmirch the university's name." At the same time, he said watered-down reform debated at length will make the campus happy only until "the money runs out."

"In the long run, you will find that you have simply postponed the crisis, not avoided it," Mead wrote.

It was a wild 16 days at the Virginia campus, which faces the same issues other major public universities face. The uproar has been put to an end, but The Washington Post argued "the real work of change must begin now" to address the economic challenges the university faces.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion
Categories (2):Editorials, Opinions

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rsp wrote on June 28, 2012 at 12:06 pm

I get so tired of hearing them argue about who's in charge and shared governance. Just once I'd like to hear about them fighting to provide the best education to the students they can. Maintaining the current status is probably more important.

Sid Saltfork wrote on June 28, 2012 at 12:06 pm

Rising tuition costs, high academic administrative salaries, massive student debt, unemployed graduates, and shrinking state support have led to the new crisis of the day.  "Pension reform" for public service employees will take place.  Spending cuts on programs for the elderly, disabled, working poor, poor, and children have taken place.  Institutions of higher education will be the new target.  Goodness forbid that tax reform, or raising taxes be discussed as an answer.  The win in Virginia is temporary sadly.  The Federal government is pulling accreditation from private schools found guilty of not responding to the current crisis.  Threats have been made for public schools to shape up.  Once the media turns it's attention toward academia; the howling mob will start demanding "academia reform" just as it did for "pension reform", and "Medicaid reform".  Boards of trustees are political.  They will bend to the public.  For academia; it is either make changes now, or stay with the old system including tenure.  Sadly, nothing stays the same forever whether we like it, or not.