The Travesty at UVA– Commentary from Judith Burstyn

June 20, 2012 | Blog

Today I welcome guest blogger Judith Burstyn, professor of chemistry and former chair of the University Committee at UW-Madison.  She has a short commentary in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, and with her permission, I am printing the entirety of that piece here. Judith was a faculty leader in the battle over the New Badger Partnership, and remains a key player in the efforts to preserve shared governance on our campus. 

Apparently, at today’s University of Virginia, business values trump all. There is a troubling recent trend toward viewing all public institutions in market terms, where value is measured by dollars produced. In recent years, UW-Madison has felt this too, as some of our leaders focus on efficiency via new “flexibilities.” But universities are not businesses. The proper role of universities is the creation of knowledge for the public good, and education of the new generations of citizens and leaders for civil society. Business management approaches are ill suited to nurture the intellectual expansiveness that underlies great scholarship and deep learning. Reliance on narrow, industry-driven curricula simply won’t do. Great universities encompass a wide variety of disciplines, methods and perspectives, irrespective of the marketability of the knowledge they create. Nourishment of the young minds of our future leaders is invaluable to our country, and the University of Virginia and UW-Madison are shining examples of excellence in this regard. I worry that this excellence is at risk.

Without the human capital embodied in their faculty, universities have nothing to offer the students who enter their doors. Great scholars are in high demand, and competition to hire and retain them is fierce. As President Sullivan said yesterday, “At any great university, the equilibrium – the pull between the desire to stay and the inducements to leave – is delicate.” If faculty members feel unsupported in their scholarly pursuits at one institution, they will move to another where there is greater support. The best scholars are the ones with the greatest number of opportunities; therefore, maintaining an outstanding cadre of faculty is an ongoing challenge. Money, as salary or support for scholarship, is only one of many parameters that influence an individual’s decision to stay at an institution or leave it.  And perhaps some of those who threaten UVA know this—aiming to drive out many of the full-time faculty, creating the opportunity to replace them with bottom-line focused adjuncts.

It is far easier to lose stature as a great university than it is to gain it; wise university leaders understand this, and they bring change to their institutions through steady and deliberate engagement of faculty, staff and students. This was precisely the type of leadership that President Sullivan appeared to be providing. Meaningful participation by these stakeholders in institutional governance is a hallmark of universities that are the most productive in terms of scholarship, and where faculty are most likely to happily reside throughout their careers. The courageous opposition to President Sullivan’s dismissal by the University of Virginia faculty senate and its executive committee, and the student council and their leadership, speak of an institution where shared governance is valued and appreciated—if not respected by its Board of Visitors.

The unilateral decision to remove a sitting university president, in the midst of a summer weekend no less, is unprecedented. Despite objections to the firing of President Sullivan by faculty and student leadership, including a vote of no confidence in the board itself by the faculty senate, the board continued its takeover. Acting like a cabal of thieves, they met late into the night, emerging with an egregious decision to replace Sullivan, a sociologist of work, with an interim president: Carl Zeithaml, F.S. Cornell Professor in Free Enterprise and Dean of the McIntire School of Commerce. This action is inimical to their responsibility as the governing board of a university.  In the words of Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the prestigious Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell, “This is the most egregious case I have ever seen of mismanagement by a governing board.”

Last year UW-Madison engaged in many discussions about the creation of its own governing board. The actions at UVA leave great cause for concern. As University of Michigan professor Michael Bastedo has written, governing boards are increasingly embedded in money and politics, engaging in self-interested decision-making.  They tell us “it’s for your own good” in an attempt at moral seduction, and a desire to appear ethical.  Intelligent communities like those at UVA and UW-Madison do not buy this. And they shouldn’t, if they are to remain the excellent and public institutions we can all respect.

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