Thursday, June 21, 2012

The mess at UVA

Given my status as a UVA alum and Charlottesville resident--as well as a frequent critic of our nation's system of higher education--there's really no way that I can get away without commenting about the recent shitstorm at my (graduate) alma mater (it's always fun when one of my alma maters' presidents gets let go, isn't it?).

But since I don't feel qualified to discuss the situation at any great length--in fact, nobody does, because everything has been done with such an air of secrecy and opacity--and I frankly don't know all that much about Dr. Sullivan (Teresa, I Hardly Knew Ye), I'll chicken out here and just re-post what I believe to be the best piece of commentary I've seen on the matter to date. From Duke sociology professor Kieran Healy, I give you an updated Declaration of Independence.

Charlottesville, June 19th, 2012

The More or Less Unanimous Declaration of the Board of Visitors

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for a Board to dissolve the administrative bands which have connected a President with a University, and to assume for themselves the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and the Bond Market entitle them, it is best to do it secretly, quickly, and in the middle of the night.

However, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation, especially when one is unexpectedly faced with large, angry crowds on the Lawn at two o’clock in the morning and a quite stupendous media shitstorm thereafter.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Universities are endowed by their Donors with certain unalienable Goals, that among these are Strategy, Dynamism, and the pursuit of some sort of Online Degree delivered via the Interwebs,—That to secure these goals, Presidents are appointed, deriving their just powers from the half-baked ideas of idle Billionaires,—That whenever any University President becomes destructive of these Goals, it is the Right of the BoV to institute a new President, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect Strategy, Dynamism, and Strategic Dynamism. Prudence dictates that Presidents only recently established should not be changed for light and transient causes; yet experience hath shewn, that Universities are more disposed to suffer than to right themselves by downsizing obscure departments such as Classics, or German, or—it now appears—Computer Science. Fuck.

Anyway, it is nevertheless our right, it is our duty, to throw off such Presidents, and to provide new Administrators for my future security. Yours! I mean, Your future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of this University; and such is now the necessity which constrains us to alter its former Systems of Government. The history of the present President is one of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the maintenance of some sort of financially viable, intellectually robust, nationally respected institution of higher learning. Such goals are so 20th Century. I read that in Forbes recently. Did I not shew it to you all via e-mail? Perhaps I forgot to attach it. Sorry, where was I? Oh yes. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world:

* She has refused to listen to me when I sent her this US News & World Report article I read about how Technology is Transforming Education.

* She has refused to hire Consultants at extortionate rates, preferring instead to consult experts on her own Faculty—as if a University were the place to find experts of any kind, the very idea. Far better to hire a team consisting mostly of 22 year-olds from McKinsey, they know how to do those 3-D charts in Excel and have you seen their Powerpoints the transitions are cool I like the flame one the best.

* She has called together legislative bodies at places normal, standard, and proximate to the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of keeping the Faculty and university community informed of her plans.

* She did not think Becoming China’s Bitch was a very good book at all.

* She has hired some Officers to implement her goals.

* She has combined with others, like the Provost, to subject us to a set of standards foreign to the understanding of Beach Condo Developers; giving her Assent to their Acts of pretended Administration:

* For Quartering large bodies of actual students among us, instead of on a website somewhere.

* For maintaining Standards without our Consent:

* For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of future consulting deals:

* She has excited domestic insurrections amongst us—have you seen this crowd outside, Helen? It’s really quite large now.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: i.e., by circulating emails amongst a subset of our group, exchanging links to some stuff in Wired Magazine about Stanford, and ginning each other up for her removal. A President whose character is thus marked by every act which may define an intelligent, decisive, forward-looking, and accountable leader, is clearly unfit to be the ruler of a Nationally-ranked University.

We, therefore, the appointed members of the Board of Visitors, in closed session, Assembled in haste and appealing to the Theory of Strategic Dynamism for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of some very wealthy people indeed, solemnly publish and declare, That President Sullivan is removed and that Dean Carl Zeithaml shall henceforth have full Power to Dynamically Strategize, set up Online Learning Working Groups, implement Acquisition and Diversification strategies, contract Knowledge-Based Sources of Competitive Advantage, develop Resource-Based Conceptual and Methodological Frameworks for Global Effectuity, and to do all other Acts and Things which Business School Professors may of right do, gosh it’s a wonder capitalism was able to get off the ground in the first place without their assistance. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence and please God the Governor, we mutually pledge your Reputation, your Fortunes and your sacred Honor.

As a Darden graduate, it's impossible for me to ignore the apparent role of my MBA alma mater in this mess--the "Becoming China's Bitch" reference in Mr. Healy's piece was a direct reference to that role--and I can't say that I'm proud of what I've read. While I think that our nation's education system is in dire need of serious reconsideration--to summarize, this is a step in the right direction, this is the opposite--I similarly think that the Board owes the Charlottesville community, the alumni of the institution, and the active student body a better and more complete explanation for their actions (if not a more active voice in the process).

Blindsiding the world with an announcement like this unequivocally makes the institution weaker, regardless of the ultimate reasons for the action. This controversy is largely a matter of goals vs. process, and in this case the process was for shit. I may even agree with the goals (it's hard to know, given the continued lack of transparency), but as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I'm proud to be associated with UVA, in large part because of the response that has followed from this situation. Whether or not Dr. Sullivan is the right leader for UVA for the next decade, this institution has built its reputation on doing things the right way, the respectful way, and the transparent way. None of those dynamics were on display here, and I'm therefore glad that there has been such an incredible backlash.

In order to get people in the broader UVA community to buy in to the drastic change that the Board is seemingly asking for, it is absolutely imperative that the people in that community believe that the Board is acting in good faith. You can't get people to buy in to your vision (whether you're a college board or a nation's president) unless they trust you and think you're worth following--right now, very few people think this Board is worth following, and that's a problem for their vision. As my political hero Otto von Bismarck would tell you, having the right goal simply isn't enough--process matters. This Board has officially learned that lesson the hard way.

[Crooked Timber]

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