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What Happens When Public Universities Are Run by Robber Barons

UVA’s president was fired last week. Why? Ask the corporate bullies who pushed her out.

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Earlier in the statement Dragas wrote that “the board feels strongly and overwhelmingly that we need bold and proactive leadership on tackling the difficult issues that we face.” So we can derive from Dragas’ statements that Sullivan was not bold enough, fast enough, or “proactive” enough to guide a bucolic 193-year-old institution founded by a stocking-wearing guy who studied Greek and Latin for fun.

We were all baffled. So Sullivan did nothing wrong? The board would not even hint at the reason she was fired. Conspiracy theories quickly circulated to fill the vacuum. And they got worse after Kiernan’s letter unleashed an unfounded fear that an MBA “cabal” was in cahoots with Goldman Sachs to loot the university.

In a live appearance at the Rotunda, the central icon of the university, Dragas did say, “We had a philosophical difference about the vision of the future of the university.” So what were those differences? She won’t say.

Fortunately, Kiernan’s email, leaked to newspapers on the following Tuesday, contained some clues. “The decision of the Board Of Visitors to move in another direction stems from their concern that the governance of the University was not sufficiently tuned to the dramatic changes we all face: funding, Internet, technology advances, the new economic model. These are matters for strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning.” Wait. What? “Strategic dynamism?” That struck many around the university as “strategic neologism.” Kiernan used the phrase two more times in his short email to supporters.

Laughter ensued. It’s the catch-phrase of the year at the University of Virginia.

I have spent the past five years immersed in corporate new-age management talk. For my recent book, The Googlization of Everything—and Why We Should Worry, I immersed myself in the rhetoric of Silicon Valley and the finance culture that supports it. I subjected myself to reading such buzzword-dependent publications as Fast Company. So I had heard about “strategic dynamism” before. I can’t say that I understand it fully. But if my university is going to be governed by a mysterious buzzphrase, I had better try.

Strategic dynamism, or, as it is more commonly called, “strategic dynamics,” seems to be a method of continually altering one's short-term targets and resource allocation depending on relative changes in environment, the costs of inputs, and the price you can charge for outputs. In management it means using dynamic graphs to track goals and outcomes over time, and having the ways and the will to shift resources to satisfy general goals via many consecutive short-term targets. Most management textbooks offer equations one may use to dynamically chart and execute strategy. And for all I know it makes a lot of sense.

Consider sailing, which one might do if one is a hedge fund billionaire from Connecticut. In sailing one sets a general course to a distant target but tacks and shifts depending on the particular environmental changes. I understand why “dynamic” is better than “static.” Who wants a static sailboat? But is a university, teeming with research, young people, ideas, arguments, poems, preachers, and way too much Adderall ever in danger of being static?

The inappropriateness of applying concepts designed for firms and sailboats to a massive and contemplative institution as a university should be clear to anyone who does not run a hedge fund or make too much money. To execute anything like strategic dynamism, one must be able to order people to do things, make quick decisions from the top down, and have a constant view of a wide array of variables. It helps if you understand what counts as an input and an output. Universities have multiple inputs and uncountable and unpredictable outputs. And that’s how we like them.