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.