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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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The result is that university administrators are in an almost impossible position. While the campus community, the public, and the state government have very particular expectations about how the university will be run – as an institution of research and education, in the manner in which its founder, Thomas Jefferson, originally ordained – the funding necessary to achieve those expectation has largely evaporated. And as the state has shrugged off the burden of paying for instruction and research, that burden inevitably shifts to student tuition and fees. The cost of a year at U.Va was a mere $484 dollars in 1970 – expensive by the standards of a public university then. In the last 10 years, however, U.Va’s in-state tuition and fees have nearly tripled, from $4,236 to $11,548.

In short, as the university has been unable to “derive existence from public patronage,” it has devolved into exactly the “private and individual concern” that Jefferson argued it shouldn’t be; as the costs have been “left to private individual effort,” the university has been transformed by fiscal necessity.

If you are the administrator of a public university today, you have every reason to expect that the slow strangulation by the state will continue – and we may have already reached the point where tuition increases at public institutions can no longer make up the difference (in fact, it may now be more expensive to attend San Jose State than it is to attend Harvard).

Enter, stage right, online education -- which people who get their higher education news from David Brooks columns have taken to be a miraculous fiscal panacea. If you can’t increase the amount of money your customers are paying, the logic goes, perhaps you can increase the number of customers that pay you? Dragas, it turns out, was much enamored of a Wall Street Journal column arguing that "The substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive) can vastly increase access to an elite-caliber education," and hoped to follow the lead of Stanford, Harvard and MIT in building what are called Massively Online Open Courses (MOOC) -- online course that can deliver the same educational commodity to thousands of paying customers, at more or less the same cost as providing it to only dozens or 100.

Like most academics, Terry Sullivan saw that while the possibilities for digital research and teaching are expansive and exciting, MOOCs will not be a magic bullet for cash-strapped universities. She almost lost her job for taking that stand. And it’s a good thing that she was reinstated, in the short term, if only because it establishes the principle that those who occupy a public university must have a say in how it will be run. But rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic will not save the ship. Like most university administrators, Terry Sullivan is more of a symptom of the problem than its cause, but the last thing we should do is mistake her restoration to the presidency for any kind of solution.

U.Va – like all American public universities – was built on a funding model that no longer exists, and no university president has the power to change that. At most (as Terry Sullivan’s first two years at U.Va demonstrate), they have the power to slow down and moderate the process of privatization. The real power – and the real problem – lies elsewhere.

Aaron Bady is a writer and academic, living in Oakland and blogging at The New Inquiry .