The academic world has been in a tizzy over the (possibly soon to be reversed) ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan by the Board of Visitors earlier this month. Much of the controversy has stemmed from the fact that the reasons for her ouster are less than clear; Sullivan was almost universally well-regarded by students and faculty, and there are no reports of any long-standing disagreements with the Board of Visitors prior to her departure.
Complicating things is the fact that the board was curiously quiet regarding the rationale behind the ouster. They gave little explanation for their decision at the time, causing many to spin wild conspiracy theories. Even the board’s after-the-fact justification for the move came across as vague and unsatisfying.
As more information has come out, however, it appears as though the decision was motivated by serious disagreements about the speed with which the university needed to change. The Board of Visitors favored a more rapid embrace of new educational technologies and approaches, while Sullivan preferred a slower, more incremental approach. The New York Times reports:
In the end, it seems, the fundamental disagreement at the University of Virginia concerned the approach to change that the president should take — either incremental, with buy-in from each of the constituencies, or more radical, imposed from the top.
Ms. [Helen] Dragas [the university's rector] has displayed a sense of urgency about pushing the university to find new revenue sources.
She has been especially concerned about pushing ahead in online learning, to keep up with Stanford, M.I.T. and other universities that have, just in the last year, begun to offer “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, free to anyone with an Internet connection, carving out new territory in an area that most universities are just beginning to explore.
Ms. Dragas sent her board a newspaper editorial on the issue, in an e-mail headed “why we can’t afford to wait.” And in a June 10 statement about Dr. Sullivan’s ouster, Ms. Dragas said that the world “is simply moving too fast” for the University of Virginia to maintain its position “under a model of incremental marginal change.”
These problems are erupting at the University of Virginia, but they aren’t unique to it. As the NYT article points out, universities all over the country are facing a world of rapid change. This is going to be hard to face. Universities are structured to adapt slowly—if at all. Typically, university presidents have only limited controls, while faculties have a lot of power to resist. Management is usually decentralized, with different schools and departments governed under different rules and accountable to different constituencies. The fiscal arrangements of most universities are both byzantine and opaque; it can be very hard for administrators to understand or properly and fairly value the true cost and contributions of different parts of the institution.
The structural problem our universities face is this: confronted with the need for sweeping, rapid changes, administrators and boards have two options — and they are both bad. One option is to press ahead to make rapid changes. This risks — and in many (perhaps most) cases will cause — enormous upheavals; star professors will flounce off. Alumni will be offended. Waves of horrible publicity will besmirch the university’s name.
Option two: you can try to make your reforms consensual — watering down, delaying, carefully respecting existing interests and pecking orders. If you do this, you will have a peaceful, happy campus . . . until the money runs out. But you will likely not get enough change made on a fast enough timetable, and in the long run you will find that you have simply postponed the crisis, not avoided it.
In this case, the board of the University of Virginia has tried the first option, and it does not seem to have managed things very well. No matter what it did, there was likely to be a stink storm; unfortunately for all concerned, poor judgment and poor presentation made things even worse than they had to be. The board should have been more upfront about the reasons behind the ouster when it happened, and should have done a better job explaining its decision after the fact.
But the unfortunate truth is that in the current situation universities do not have much time to change. We have pointed out before that the pace of change in key American institutions is accelerating. These changes will not be easy; there is going to be in a lot of discomfort and a lot of pain. Much that is valuable will be lost, and many people will have to accept changes that they deeply dislike.
One of the great flashpoints for change will be the learned professions. These are still structured like medieval guilds in many ways. University faculties are self governing institutions who are proud of their traditions, their privileges, and their autonomy, and it is not at all clear that these guilds can survive in the present form in any but the richest universities.
Public universities (and relatively poor private ones) are most at risk. Harvard and Yale can afford to do pretty much what they want. But other schools are much more exposed to the need for change. Some of this is purely financial. We have warned in the past that the crisis in state budgets will impact universities extremely harshly. This is already beginning to happen in many states, and these pressures are likely to increase as state belt-tightening intensifies in the years ahead. If the choice is to slash pensions, raise taxes or cut funding for universities, most legislatures have chosen and will continue to choose to cut the university share of the budget.
In other cases the pressure for change will be less direct. But if Harvard is offering online courses with world famous professors, what exactly is the justification for offering an inferior product at a much higher cost? It is not at all clear why the “research university” model, with its extremely high costs and inflexible structure, should be the delivery system of choice for postsecondary education across the whole country. Many students might be much better served with a system in which a “rock star” professor delivers lectures online, while specially trained and qualified (but quite likely non-PhD) instructors lead discussions, work one-on-one with students, and grade papers.
A school set up like this would likely offer a much better quality of undergraduate education than lower-tier research universities offer today, with more individual attention and a much, much lower cost.
This kind of change would have to come almost literally over the dead bodies of the current faculties in many schools, and it would dramatically reduce the demand for PhD programs in most fields outside of science and math around the country. No board and no president anywhere in the United States could introduce these kind of changes without setting off massive resistance, but it is likely that many universities will have to move in this direction to survive. (For a more extensive take on this subject, read The Higher Education Bubble by Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds.)
These changes will ultimately be beneficial, though the costs will be real. Society simply needs more education than the classical research university can provide at an acceptable cost. Cheaper, better, more convenient and more democratic: it is hard to win a fight against an alternative that offers so much to so many.
In an ideal world, university professors and other intellectuals would have been thinking about these problems for many years. They would be the pioneers in innovation and experiment. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. The intellectual establishment is fully on the defensive. It is circling the wagons. It instinctively identifies attacks on the existing model with the worst kind of populist ignorance and bigotry. Nobody is angrier, nastier or more self-righteous than an intellectual whose livelihood is under threat.
The bureaucracy will join the faculty senate in fighting change. All those vice provosts for diversity and assistant deans for various forms of student services are sure that their services are essential — or at least they are sure that they want to keep their jobs. The stripped down, leaner, New Model U will have much less room for baggage and ballast than the stately, well funded cruise ships of old.
What we see at UVA this month is just a foretaste of the storm that is coming — a few early raindrops and gusts of wind before the real storm hits. The country needs more education than the current system can affordably supply, and the pressure on the educational system will not abate until this problem is resolved.
[UPDATE: Several hours after this essay was posted, the University of Virginia announced that the ousted president, Teresa A. Sullivan, had been reinstated by a unanimous vote of the Board of Visitors. Under the circumstances, the board had no viable alternative; this course was clearly in the best interests of the university. Left unanswered are the questions about the future of this and other great American universities. The lives of America's university presidents are not going to get any easier.]