It’s Time to Wake Up

June 17, 2012 | Blog

The smoldering ashes of public higher education can be seen and smelled across the nation, as the once much-lauded, now much-decried University of Virginia goes up in flames.

Pardon my French, but it’s about time everyone opened their eyes, ears, and mouth. This stuff stinks!

It’s impossible to count how often during the past several years those of us residing at her sister public flagships have heard UVA held up as a model, a “best-practice” of public higher education for the 21st century.  Haven’t you heard all about her wondrous break from state government that allowed her the “flexibility” and “innovative freedoms” to raise tuition while expanding affordability, thriving when the rest of us starved?  We at UW-Madison got an earful of it from ex-chancellor Biddy Martin during the fiasco known as the New Badger Partnership. And true believers abounded.

As I said then, that emperor has no clothes.  UVA hasn’t been a true public university in some time. It is not a democratic institution where the voices of all constituencies are honored. It is not succeeding in expanding affordability with Access UVA, an ineffective sinkhole into which millions of dollars have been thrown.   It is not flourishing with strong academic programs and a great faculty retention rate.  It is not innovative, not independent, and not a model.  No, it is a rich man’s campus, run by millionaires and political conservatives, who are driving agendas disconnected from the needs of educators and students. And those elites just got their way, evicting a president who appears to have stood up to their efforts at “strategic dynamism”– e.g. the crappification of all that is good and meaningful, and worth investing in in public higher education.

The people governing UVA are like so many of the so-called “reformers” who think efficiency and flexibility are magical words, and who have conveniently but very wrongly diagnosed the challenges facing colleges and universities as residing in the “inmates” — i.e. the faculty.  These boards and trustees have an unbelievably disrespectful attitude towards the teachers to whom they pay tens of thousands of dollars to educate their children in what they fondly call an “asylum.”

The conservative agenda to defund public institutions at all possible levels has created this situation– not the faculty.  Don’t fool yourself — those who advocate for “holding the line on college costs”  are not doing it for the good of the students but for the good of the corporations who seek to benefit from the rapid growth of the for-profit sector. It is nothing short of devastating that this agenda had confused the public from embracing a genuine affordability agenda, such as the one I support, that works with educators to find affordable approaches to high-quality education and a system of paying for it that maximizes the enrollment and success of students who will benefit most.

Institutional insiders– high-level administrator types– have too-easy embraced (sometimes unwittingly) the conservative agenda because they are paid handsomely to do it.  Heck, if they don’t oblige quickly, it’s clear they’ll be fired! After a bit, they begin to enjoy drinking that kool-aid, since they are ensconced in fancy homes, taken to lovely meals, and sent on jaunts to Paris. It’s far easier to embrace the business people than to labor in the trenches doing battle with state legislators who fear college’s so-called liberalizing tendencies (what we call “being educated”).   It’s not surprising that the Board at UVA assumed Teresa Sullivan would go along with them.  It’s pretty clear that Biddy Martin would’ve.   But they made a mistake, since as a sociologist Teresa has a knack for using her skills as an “outsider looking in” as well as an “insider looking out.”  She’s a sociologist of work and organizations and no doubt saw their scheme for what it was, refusing to play along. After all, she views the university as a “compact among generations,” not a compact between business and politics.

She was ousted. Good for her.  Twenty minutes of good hard labor in public higher education is worth far more than decades of pandering to the likes of business school deans, Bob McDonnell and Scott Walker, and wealthy alumni.

Want to be a ‘Sconnie, Teresa?  We’d love to talk.

ps. For more superb reading on the UVA drama, I recommend these astute commentaries:

Kris Olds–  a friend, a colleague, a genius
Dagblog — this guy even uses the word ‘neoliberalism’

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