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What Terry Sullivan's Reinstatement at U. Va Really Tells Us about the Future of Higher Ed

Does the reappointment of University of Virginia's president mark a triumph over corporate interests? Or is it more proof that public universities are headed for demise?

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When President Sullivan was first fired, Helen Dragas said it was because she lacked a sense of urgency in facing what the Board of Visitors deemed to be “an existential threat to the greatness of U.Va.” Leaked emails have shown that a big push toward online education was what the board wanted, and that Sullivan – a self-described incrementalist – sought what she called “sustained change with buy-in,” rather than the kind of radical transformation from above that the board sought to impose. But does this count as a “philosophical difference”? Or is it merely a question of how fast, and how roughly, to privatize the university?

It’s worth noting, for example, that when the deans of 10 of the university’s 11 schools petitioned the Board of Directors to reconsider their decision, they argued that Sullivan herself would be best placed to take rapid action. While “appointing an interim president…will clearly delay rapid action on the fiscal issues and other substantial changes,” they argued that reconstituting Sullivan’s team would allow her to “accelerate the important decisions to be made.” They even emphasized that “the circumstances of the last two weeks have impressed on President Sullivan, the vice presidents, and the deans the seriousness with which the BOV takes the challenges that face the university—and the need to address these issues rapidly, thoughtfully, and in a collegial but urgent fashion.” Again, what’s striking about this is the extent to which everyone seems to agree on what the university needs to be transformed into; what they seem to disagree about is simply the question of how, and how fast.

In general, few people have a realistic sense of how privatized even a “public” university like U.Va already is -- or what this turn to privatization actually means. Once upon a time, U.Va was a wholly state-supported and state-run endeavor. Indeed, when Thomas Jefferson founded his “academical village,” he disagreed with “some good men” who believed that education was a private and individual concern, and “should be left to private individual effort.” Instead, he argued that doing it right would simply be too expensive for individuals to ever manage; as he put it,

...an establishment embracing all the sciences which may be useful and even necessary in the various vocations of life, with the buildings and apparatus belonging to each, are far beyond the reach of individual means, and must either derive existence from public patronage, or not exist at all.

And for most of U.Va’s two centuries of existence, Jefferson’s original vision maintained its sway.

By the 1960s, however, the cost of a first-class research university was rising at the same time as the public’s taste for funding it diminished, and state funding has been in steady decline ever since. U.Va is no exception to this rule: by 1980, the percentage of U.Va’s total revenue that came from state appropriations was down to a mere 37%, and today, that figure is closer to 13% -- less than half what the university brings in from student tuition, and barely more than what it receives from alumni gifts and private donations.

One cannot overstate the importance of this context. Like most public universities, U.Va has gone, as the saying goes, from being “state-funded to state-supported to state-located.” Indeed, early this year, the current chancellor of William and Mary bitterly added “state molested” to that list: while the state has direct authority over how universities like U.Va and William and Mary will be run (and as the last few weeks have shown, no compunction about exercising it), it has long since given up taking any kind of comprehensive responsibility for actually funding the things it instructs the university to do.