In recent week the Commonwealth of Virginia has been transfixed by the very public, very raucous, and very un-Virginia like events surrounding the firing and then rehiring of the President of the University of Virginia.

Among the criticism leveled at the Rector and Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia was a belief that the board, overwhelming composed of corporate types and influenced by the thinking of the Darden School, viewed the University as a business and not an educational institution.

I think that is a fair criticism of the University of Virginia and all Boards of Visitors all of Virginia’s Public Colleges and Universities.  Oh yes from time to time a non business person is appointed but their sway over the affairs of the particular Board they sit on is minimal.  Recently, Governor Bob McDonnell made the following appointments to various education Boards, the vast majority of them are in business.

On the whole they are not a bad lot; however the Commonwealth would be well served by having a more diverse composition on the Boards.  Here I do not refer to the racial or gender makeup, although I have doubt there should be more of both minorities and women on these boards, rather what they do with their professional lives.  We have no police chiefs, no Andy Taylor’s Sheriff of their county, a smattering of politicians, no housewives, or barbers, or small businessmen or educators.  It is important to have perspective on these boards for higher education can easily become captive to the vested interest of business or academia depending on the level of involvement by the members the board.

First and foremost Colleges and Universities are institutions of higher learning; they are not businesses.  To provide a broad based liberal education requires a broad offering of courses, of which some shall be more subscribed than others.  This does not mean they should not be efficient and have some means of measuring the ability of their instructors.

Colleges and Universities are by far very inefficient institutions of learning.  At too many universities the only measurement of how well a professor is doing by the weight and breath of their published works in journals and manuscripts.  Unfortunately journals tend to be read only by those interested in the field, as are the manuscripts; in fact most academic journal articles and manuscripts are a more effective cure for somnambulism than conveying knowledge.

Another measure is how well a Professor teaches is often judged by their evaluations; the evaluations by their students; evaluation which can be viewed as either an objective evaluation or a popularity contest.  Unfortunately while many colleges and universities have attempted to devise a truly empirical means of measuring how well a professor teaches, most are flawed, and those touted by the administration are viewed with suspicion by the Faculty Senate and those touted by the Faculty are viewed with suspicion by the administration.  The students will let you know how well a teacher teaches by the number who sign up for their advance courses but then that is considered a beauty contest.

So which programs do you eliminate?  In the recent brouhaha at the University of Virginia part of the criticism of President Sullivan was she would not eliminate the Classics and German Departments.  While clearly they are not subscribed to the same extent as other Departments, in particular Commerce and Science and Engineering, they are a critical part of a broad based education.

The questions for the Board of Visitors are those two departments worth it?  If solely based on business metrics neither would survive.  But if the measure is how they contributed to a broad based education an argument can be made that reading Petrarch in Latin rather than a translation allows the students to understand the nuisances of the author’s writings.  If one wants to understand the reasons for Germany’s aggression in World War One the ability to read Gephardt Ritter’s Sword and Scepter in German is a necessity.  I know you can read Ritter in English but it lacks the depth that comes from reading it in German.

But these are subjective judgments that are hard to justify unless those to whom you are making the justification are willing to accept subjective judgments.  Unfortunately that is not the case any longer, for our politicians, those who comprise the General Assembly want to see what is cost effective and reject subjective judgments.  There was a time, not many years ago, that when the then President of the University of Virginia Colgate Darden could assure the General Assembly all was well with Mr. Jefferson’s academical village and no one would question his judgment.

That has all changed and today without metrics, the General Assembly will merely reduce further their paltry contributions to the University and all other state supported institutions of higher learning.

But this is not to say that the Colleges and Universities are without sin—there are many aspects of Academia that demands attention and reform.  I shan’t go in to all of them, but are several I will touch upon:

  • The rise of the academic bureaucrats—the administrators whose exalted positions demand that they receive large salaries far out of portion to what they do and their net worth to their College or University.
  • The abuses of tenure; to with measuring the worth of professors not on how well they teach but rather on the heft of their publications.  There is no longer a need for tenure, or tenure as it has been structured in the past.
  • Professors are hardly overworked.  On an average college campus a professor will teach two and on occasion three classes per semester.  Professors who are heads of Departments or have an endowed chair may teach only one course, most often to graduate students.  Most undergraduate teaching is left to adjunct professors or graduate assistants.

What these three items all have in common in money.  Money, that because of reduced state support to Virginia’s state supported Colleges and Universities, that must be collected from fees charged to the students.  From a legislators point of view why should state support to College or University X be increased when they have bloated and expensive bureaucracy, they have professors who do little or no teaching yet collect good salaries each month, and have other professors who have plenty of time to surf the web looking at porn (always in the name of academic research), playing golf, or sleeping with their office door closed because they teach so few classes and are available to their students for one hour on the fifth Wednesday of each month.

There is plenty of room for reform in Virginia’s public Colleges and Universities.  Here are some suggestions:

Categorize Virginia’s Public Colleges and Universities as being State Financed, States Supported, or State Flag Ship Universities.  Each of these would carry a different level of financial support for the Commonwealth:

  • State Financed would receive more than 60% of their operating budget from the Commonwealth of Virginia and would be primarily focused on teaching and not research.  (Virginia State, University of Virginia at Wise, Virginia Military Institute, Christopher Newport, Richard Bland College, Community College System)
  • State Supported would receive between 30 and 50% of their operating budget from the Commonwealth and whose mission would be undergraduate, graduate education and research.  (JMU, GMU, Longwood, Norfolk State, Radford University, University of Mary Washington, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, VT Extension, VSU Extension)
  • State Flag Ship Universities would be affiliated with the Commonwealth of Virginia, would receive not more that 20% of its operating budget from the Commonwealth, and would be free of direct oversight from the Commonwealth.  (University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Old Dominion University, College of William and Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University)
  • Reform the appointment process for the Boards of Visitors by reducing the power of Alumni and wealthy donors to garner seats on the Board of Visitors.
    • Allow the Speaker of the House to appoint one member of the House of Delegates who is not a graduate of a particular College or University to the Board of Visitors.
    • Allow the President of the Senate to appoint one member of the Senate who is not a graduate of a particular College or University to the Board of Visitors.
    • Lastly mandate diversity of race, gender, and occupational background on the Boards of Visitors of each College and University.
  • Reduce the layers of administrators by 20% and establish guidelines on the number and salaries of administrators.
    • As a general rule no administrator’s salary should be greater than that of the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
  • Require that all faculty members teach a minimum of three course per semester; except those whose appointments are as a visiting professor, research or graduate professor, who course load would be determined by the Boards of Visitors.

None of these suggestions are panaceas; you will note I did not address the question of Tenure.  While clearly an area that requires reform, as Sun Tzu implied fight those battles you can win now; fight other battles when you can win.  Let’s get some reforms now and then go after tenure later.

It is time that the Commonwealth of Virginia demand that it’s Colleges and Universities be affordable institution of learning to its citizens.  Colleges and Universities are not businesses in the classic sense; they are in the business of education.  Like all businesses they should be efficient, free of bloat, and provide the best to their customers the students and their parents, but unlike classic businesses there are good reasons for allowing inefficiency in the pursuit of education.  A Classics department with four professors and four undergraduates a year may not be efficient but it adds to the breadth and depth of the educational experience.

Balance not purely a business approach is required.  It is time for balance not only in the governance of our public Colleges and Universities; but also in the quality of the education provided the students—ultimately how well that is accomplished will be how each College or University is judged.

Post Script:  While I have focused on the University of Virginia; the same underlying debate has occurred at my own Alma Mater, the Virginia Military Institute, where as I understand it from a Chronicle of Higher Education article the Dean of the Faculty has proposed limiting the numbers of individuals who may enroll in popular majors; eliminating the Physics, German Department as degree granting Departments; and changing the focus of the English Department from Literature to Rhetoric.  As I am in no way associated with the University of Virginia, I have chosen to focus on its recent problems.  When I have the appropriate information I may choose, if Colonel Lang will so permit, to comment on our Alma Mater.


6 thoughts on “Some Thoughts On the Late Unpleasantness at the University of Virginia

  1. Couple of thoughts:

    1) State universities exist to benefit their states (OK, here, “Ccommonwealth”): a classics department is not high on the list of beneficial things.

    2) If the Classics Department at UVA were a crown jewel of the university, OK, but it isn’t. Basically, there are about two Departments of Classics in America that are exceptional: Harvard and Holy Cross (maybe Williams is in that league, but only maybe). Why waste the money? This is especially true where, Classics is outside Mr. Jefferson’s original vision for his university.

    3) That you don’t grant degrees in German from a German Department does not mean that you don’t teach German at all. There is increasing value in the study of languages, perhaps especially for non-majors in the subject.

    4) I have heard that much of the conflict was the fact that much more is going to be done on-line and the once, present and future President objected. She lost that fight and rightly so.

    5) If you buy the ideas of Peter Drucker, business advice is what not-for-profits (including, but not limited to state universities) most need: they understand the core tasks, what they need to know is how to keep the doors open while doing those core tasks. That is not Andy Taylor’s skill-set, but it might be Ben Matlock’s.

    • You missed entirely the point I was trying to make when I suggested an Andy Taylor–the Board of Visitors needs to represent the entire swath of individual in the Commonwealth to include those from rural counties and small towns–their sons and daughters also attend our Universities although we tend to forget that sitting in Richmond, Norfolk, or Northern Virginia. I remember a VMI Alumnus telling my late father the problem with VMI then (in the 1980’s) it didn’t have enough “hairy ass country boys and had too many city slickers.”

      I believe there is a future to on line education, but it is not the panacea. Some on line teaching can be very valuable, although I would find it hard to teach a seminar session in American History on line as the interaction is key to the learning. In many disciplines in Science and Engineering I question whether on line learning would work.

      • The problem is that most of what you need from your Board with most not-for-profits is hard skills (“raise money, raise profile, raise applications,” were the buzz words for a Board mission in education for a while). Further, small towns and rural counties ARE NOT where the bulk of the students are.

        At VMI, that cuts both ways, in the sense that you have as a formal part of your mission (with the State Cadet program) the education of academiclly able men and women of modest means. Many (but not all) of those kids come from “rural counties and small towns,” but increasinglu a lot of them now are ‘city slickers’ from “Richmond, Norfolk” and the like.

        As to whether or not distance learning works in science and engineering, we are about to see a good test. MIT is going into this in a big way.

      • Another aspect of this, in my limited experiance, is that people who are brought on to not-for-profit Boards to represent some limited, particular issue or interest often focus on that issue or interest to the exclusion of almost anything else and become marginal quickly.

        One thing that is true about Boards for academic institutions is that the Board members tend to be there because they respect (even love) the institution. Some times that impairs objectivity, another very good argument for bean-counters.

  2. While I was not a German Major, I was a Spanish Double Major at VMI (in fact, a Ponzanelli Medal finalist). I’m not sure there should be a German major at VMI (or a Spanish Major) as opposed to having a Modern Language service department that taught basic skills in a decent choice of languages.

    You can’t teach everything, especially at a small school. I think VMI has been wise to stay focused on Engineering, Science and the Liberal Arts for about a century. That Economics now has a more Business and Management cast, as opposed to social science, or that English now focuses on Rhetoric (dare i say “Communications?”) not Literature, may just reflect where society is going.

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