News & Politics

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?

Photo Credit: Troy via Wikimedia Commons

The short-term crisis at the University of Virginia has been resolved. Two weeks ago, the University’s Board of Visitors voted unanimously to reinstate the president they had unceremoniously fired two weeks before that, and all might now seem well. The school’s Rector, Helen Dragas (who spearheaded the removal), and its newly reinstated president, Terry Sullivan, walked into the Board of Visitors meeting together, voted together, and afterward, were seen hugging and chatting like old comrades, vowing to work together to move the university forward.

A week later, Helen Dragas was reappointed to the Board. Everything, apparently, is back to where it was before the crisis erupted.

So what exactly happened here? It remains surprisingly difficult to say. Dragas always maintained that there was nothing personal about Sullivan’s ouster – insisting that despite mutual respect on all sides, Sullivan was fired because of “philosophical” differences over the direction the university would take going forward. Yet in the anti-climactic resolution of the crisis, those philosophical differences seem to have melted away.


Most observers have tended to interpret Sullivan’s ouster as a battle over the corporatization of the public university, as a philosophical struggle between “education” and “business.” In an early article, U.Va professor Siva Vaidhyanathan equated the ouster with “robber barons try[ing] to usurp control of established public universities to impose their will,” while U.Va alumnus Jamelle Bouie argued in the American Prospect that Dragas’ coup represented “The Corporatization of UVa.”

But while these arguments set the tone for the crisis, they have tended to melt away in its aftermath. It’s not hard to understand why: as the two principle antagonists in this drama settle down to work together, it suddenly becomes difficult to see the one as the evil avatar of advancing corporatization and the other as the noble defender of core educational values. Does the philosophical difference that made it necessary to fire Terry Sullivan still exist? What if it never existed at all?

It wasn’t Thomas Jefferson, after all, who originally appointed Sullivan to her position; she was appointed to her post by Helen Dragas and almost exactly the same group of investment bankers, developers and other politically connected “robber barons” who voted to remove her a month ago, voted to reappoint her two weeks ago, and who will vote to appoint the next president, too. Though it is tempting to feel that Sullivan’s reinstatement was a triumph over corporate interests, in fact, no such thing is true. Rather, Sullivan’s return to the presidency has only served to reestablish the fact that the governing boards of “public” universities like U.Va are utterly dominated by corporate interests -- and, in some ways, uniquely vulnerable to corporate manipulation and power plays of the sort that just took place.

Why is this the case? Take a moment to consider how the boards of public universities are comprised and the “why” becomes quickly apparent. As Washington Post reporter Anita Kumar blandly wrote last year (using the same sentence in two different articles), appointment to the governing boards of public universities has become a fairly open form of quid pro quo for political contributions:

It's common for governors to use board of visitors appointments – the most prestigious appointments they have to offer – as a thank-you to longtime supporters and friends.

This bit of copy and paste journalism tells you something about how banal this kind of corruption has become. Board appointments to universities are a naked piece of political patronage, and can be a remarkably profitable one for the truly unscrupulous. But the end result is simple: “public” university boards are totally dominated by high-powered corporate types, developers like Dragas and especially by investment bankers, the only people with enough money and power to buy their way into the position. Don’t take my word for this – just look at the composition of the U.Va Board of Directors (or at any public university’s board of trustees or regents). What you’ll find is invariably the same: a cross-section of the corporate class that has donated heavily to the governor of that state and been rewarded for it.

The contrast with the governing board at, for example, the University of British Columbia (a Canadian public university) is quite stark: while half of UBC’s board is appointed by the Province (and is still dominated by investment bankers and developers), eight of the 21 board members who run the school are actually faculty, students and staff, and are elected to their positions by faculty, students and staff. Public universities in the US have nothing like this; there might be a single student representative, but that person has no particular voting power, and is usually selected precisely because they will not rock the boat.

It’s a depressing measure of how far the public university in the US has fallen, in fact, that fully privatizing them might actually be one way to re-focus them on their public mission of education and research. Private universities are not actually “private” in the sense of being run for profit, after all; unlike explicitly for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix, “private” universities are 501c(3) non-profits, and they tend to act like it.

If you look at the governing boards of private universities like Harvard or Swarthmore, for example, you’ll find that along with bankers and developers, there is also critical mass of alumni, public servants and academics, and that the board’s fundamental agenda tends to be maintaining continuity of mission and purpose -- to doing, at most, a better version of what they’ve always done. The result is that while “private” universities in the US tend to be run by people who actually believe in the non-profit mission of their institutions, the governing boards of our “public” institutions are places where the wisdom of running the university “like a business” has long gone unquestioned.

It’s important to observe that Terry Sullivan’s tenure at U.Va has always been, in every sense, utterly compatible with that last bit of wisdom. As my friend ReclaimUC pointed out almost immediately (in two important pieces on "The Structural Logic of Administration" and "The Invisibility of Corporatization"), Sullivan’s signature accomplishment at U.Va so far – other than raising tuition by 20% in two years – has been establishing a budgeting model called “responsibility center management” (RCM), which essentially allows individual academic units to manage their own budget processes (and keep any revenues they generate). As David Kirp describes in his book Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education:

Proponents [of RCM] contend that a university should be run like a firm, in which every academic unit carries its weight financially. In business terms, that means each unit is expected to be a profit center. Whether it's the college of arts and sciences, the dental school, or the business school, the costs -- which include salaries, space, and the like -- cannot exceed the revenues, whether raised through tuition, contracts, grants, or gifts. A school that runs a surplus gets to keep it, while a school with a deficit has to pay it back. (pp. 115)

For Kirp, RCM represents precisely the kind of corporatization that Sullivan has been (erroneously) credited with rejecting:

The debate over the wisdom of running a university according to the principles of the corporate profit center is in essence a contest of worldviews. It is an argument between those who believe that the citizens of a university are members of a company whose chief mission is to maximize dollar profits and those committed to the idea of the university as a community in which "gift relationships" are the norm. (pp. 116)

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, 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.

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.

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