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The Decline and Fall of a Public University: How Status Anxiety Doomed the University of Virginia

Many public universities are suffering these days, wracked by budget cuts and struggling to bring enough students through the door. The University of Virginia isn’t one of them. A $5 billion endowment makes it the wealthiest public university, per capita, in the United States. Over 28,000 students applied for admission last year, a record high. The stately campus, a classic of red brick and white colonnade, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thomas Jefferson’s founding spirit lives on.

So it was all the more shocking when UVA’s governing body, the Board of Visitors, unceremoniously sacked university president Teresa Sullivan last week, less than two years into her tenure. Such abrupt changes are almost unheard-of at an institution of Virginia’s stature (Sullivan’s predecessor had served 20 years) and usually stem from scandal. Yet the public statements of Helen Dragas, a wealthy condominium developer and the board leader (or “Rector”), referred only to the need for things like “bold and proactive leadership” and a “faster pace of change” in justifying the firing.

At UVA, reaction to the decision was almost uniformly negative. As the subsequent week progressed, outrage mounted among students, faculty, and the university’s vast network of loyal alumni. No-confidence votes were taken, donations rescinded, and faculty positions resigned. UVA’s good name was tainted by national news stories portraying a university in crisis and disarray. Faculty are now openly questioning whether to serve a new leader at all.

It has been an epic public relations blunder of the kind that savvy, highly-professional elite universities hardly ever commit. The Board of Visitors was apparently so frightened by the future that they threw one the nation’s most august institutions of higher learning into a deliberate tailspin. What, exactly, were they scared of? And what does it mean for other, seemingly-invulnerable institutions like UVA?

DRAGAS HAS LARGELY kept mum since the sacking, so most of what is known comes from official statements, leaked emails, and anonymous quotations in the press. As yet, there has been no hint of scandal in Sullivan’s office. (Rather, word has leaked that Dragas had been privately conspiring with like-minded board members— including Vice Rector Mark Kington, a venture capitalist, and hedge fund manager Peter Kiernan, chair of the business school board—since last October, barely a year after Sullivan’s arrival in Charlottesville.) This appears to be the rare case where “philosophical differences” is more than euphemism. The over-arching claim against Sullivan is that she failed to exhibit sufficient boldness and alacrity in the face of, in Dragas’ words, an “existential threat to the greatness of UVA.”

Greatness meaning what, exactly? Paul Tudor Jones II, a UVA alum, multi-million dollar donor, and, like Kiernan, a billionaire hedge fund manager who lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, was among the few alumni to support the firing. In a letter to the Charlottesville newspaper, Jones II noted that UVA’s U.S. News & World Report ranking had fallen from number 15 to number 25 over the last 25 years, professor salaries lagged behind competitor schools, and more students were choosing wealthy private universities like Harvard over Virginia. In other words, UVA was falling short on the beauty-contest measures of wealth, fame, and exclusivity that comprise the U.S. News rankings. In an email to colleagues, Kiernan justified the “project” of ousting Sullivan on the grounds that she lacked the “strategic dynamism” necessary in tumultuous times.

Surprisingly, Sullivan’s failure to aggressively pursue online higher education was part of the narrative portraying her as behind the times. For most of the last decade, Internet-based courses have been seen as the province of for-profit colleges that are as far in public reputation from Charlottesville as one can be. But as I pointed out in March of this year in TNR, Stanford and M.I.T. are now leading the way in offering a new breed of free online courses that enjoy an association with elite schools. Two months later, Harvard announced that it was jumping on the online bandwagon.

It was the first time an elite university seemingly got into the online game not because it thought this was a good idea, or that there was money to be made, but because it was afraid of being left behind its peers in adopting the new new thing. Reputational competition is an enormous motive force atop the higher education food chain. Three months after Harvard’s move, in her original firing statement, Dragas noted that “higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions.” Leaked emails show Dragas and Kington sending one another opinion columns from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times about the Stanford and Harvard courses. One, sent by Dragas two weeks before the firing, was titled "good piece in WSJ today—why we can't afford to wait.”

Newspaper reports alleged that the board was also angry with Sullivan’s unwillingness to enforce harsh budget cuts against academic disciplines that “couldn't sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German." These were unfortunate subjects to single out. As Scott Jaschik of InsideHigherEd quickly noted, Thomas Jefferson himself was devoted to the classics. Meanwhile, German-speaking people currently hold the fate of the global economy in their hands.

The UVA fiasco also illustrates how blithely states take the task of governing their public universities. No other area of major public expenditure exists at such a remove from accountability to elected officials. The 16-member Board of Visitors consists almost exclusively of wealthy businesspeople who were friends with or donors to the various Virginia governors who appointed the board. Vice Rector Kington, who resigned several days ago, served a previous term on the board after donating tens of thousands of dollars to Governor Mark Warner. Then he backed the opponent of Warner’s successor, Tim Kaine, and was kicked off. Then he donated over $100,000 to current Governor Bob McDonnell, and was reinstated. Kiernan chaired the board of the business school foundation because he donated millions of dollars to the business school. The nature of the financial transactions involved is readily apparent. (McDonnell, no profile in courage, has refused to take any action to stem the growing crisis.)

A university governed entirely by wealthy businesspeople steeped in a culture of corporate strategy memos will reflect the peculiar perspectives of the modern rich. The financialized American economy has made vast fortunes for gamblers with poor impulse control who mistake a lucky roll of the dice for intelligence and virtue. It’s not surprising that the same kind of fast-twitch thinking would lead a group of homogenous financial patrons talking among themselves to lose patience with a career higher education administrator who was insufficiently galvanized by the latest columns from Thomas Friedman and David Brooks.

It’s also hard to ignore the role of gender in these events. I have briefly met, or at least been in the same room with, both Sullivan and her predecessor, John Casteen. (Both occasions were private meetings of small higher education task forces to which I was asked to testify.) Casteen is the picture of a classic university president in appearance and affect, a tall white man of distinguished age who spoke with total confidence and authority, verging on arrogance. Sullivan was more of a listener, offering constructive commentary while letting others have their say. She is also a matronly woman of 62 who doesn’t evoke simple-minded visions of “bold leadership” in the management-consulting, advertisement vein. (To his credit, Casteen has publicly denounced the secrecy surrounding Sullivan’s ouster.)

Rector Dragas in particular seems to have confused chairing the board for being in charge. UVA’s most important assets aren’t in the bank, but in the minds of students, citizens, and scholars who collectively hold the university’s reputation and vision of itself. They’re the University of Virginia’s real shareholders and can’t be ignored without consequence. Most university trustees are bright enough to understand this. The fact that Dragas didn’t anticipate the current, entirely predictable P.R. debacle speaks volumes about her judgment in firing Sullivan in the first place.

IN A SENSE, the board members were not wrong to be worried that Virginia is in danger of not reaching their cramped view of greatness. As Sullivan herself noted in a candid internal strategy memo, UVA’s roots are in residential undergraduate liberal arts education, and, as such, the school does not possess the massive infrastructure of science-related research and graduate funding enjoyed by competitors like the University of Michigan. UVA should indeed pursue new opportunities in online education (and has established some programs already), so that it can serve more of those 28,000 applicants and many others besides. But translating an intensive undergraduate liberal arts experience to the Internet isn’t an easy task. As a public university, UVA needs to serve in-state students from diverse academic and economic backgrounds. It doesn’t actually do this very well—the percentage of students on Pell grants is among the lowest of any public university in America—but the obligation remains.

But whatever good intentions that the University of Virginia Board of Visitors may have had were quickly overwhelmed by its parochial anxieties. Apparently, they were afraid that their beloved alma mater might not be able to compete with rich private universities in enrolling undergraduate classes comprised exclusively of rich legacies, ruling class trainees, and students whose remarkable talents reflect well on the Board of Visitors. They were worried that revenues would be used to support money-losing subjects like classics instead of recruiting “star” professors who never teach undergraduates. That the task of teaching young people might distract from the pursuit of status competition with rival universities on whose boards their fellow plutocrats sit. That the university would be forced to get by with $5 billion in the bank, and remain entangled with the needs and desires of the state citizens whose two centuries of labor built the place, brick by brick.

In other words, they saw a future where the University of Virginia might be forced to operate as an actual public university, and were terrified by the thought of it. So they panicked, and in their bumbling have put Thomas Jefferson’s priceless legacy to his state and nation at risk.