What Happens When Public Universities Are Run by Robber Barons
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Still, this cultish diction seems to have swayed at least a few people on the Board of Visitors. It helped convinced them that Sullivan was either not strategic enough or dynamic enough or both. Almost a week after the event and in the face of harsh and universal condemnation, the board itself remains silent about its specific disagreements with Sullivan. The Kiernan letter is the only text that guides us.
We on the faculty, joined by thousands of students and alumni, have been asking the board for two simple things. Would it please tell us the specific issues on which it disagreed with Sullivan? And would it please tell us what sort of person it thinks should be president of the university … and for how long?
Both the Kiernan letter and Dragas’ shallow statements discuss the climate facing the university and all public universities in the United States. The problem is, everyone seems to discuss the fact that universities have too little money as if it actually were a matter of climate.
It’s not. It’s a matter of politics. States have been making policy decisions for 20 years, accelerating remarkably since the 2007 recession, to cut funding severely, shifting the costs to students and the federal government. Adjusted for inflation, state support for each full-time public-college student declined by 26.1 percent from 1990 to 2010. Meanwhile, faculty and staff salaries have been plummeting and security evaporating. This is especially true at the University of Virginia, where state support per student is far lower than at comparable state universities such as North Carolina.
So as tuition peaks and federal support dries up, the only stream still flowing is philanthropy. Our addiction to philanthropy carries great costs as well as benefits to public higher education in America. We are hooked on it because we have no choice. Either we beg people for favors or our research grinds to a halt and we charge students even more. I am complicit in this. I enthusiastically help raise money for the university. And my salary is subsidized by a generous endowment from board member Tim Robertson, son of the Rev. Pat Robertson.
The reason folks such as Dragas and Kiernan get to call the shots at major universities is that they write huge, tax-deductable checks to them. They buy influence and we subsidize their purchases. So too often an institution that is supposed to set its priorities based on the needs of a state or the needs of the planet instead alters its profile and curriculum to reflect the whims of the wealthy. Fortunately this does not happen often, and the vast majority of donors simply want to give back to the institutions that gave them so much. They ask nothing in return and admire the work we do. But it happens often enough to significantly undermine any sense of democratic accountability for public institutions.
The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.
Universities do not have “business models.” They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Siva Vaidhyanathan is the Robertson Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. He also teaches in the School of Law, and is the author of The Googlization of Everything and Why We Should Worry.