Publick Occurrences 2.0

June 20, 2012

The Accelerating Pace of Change for Its Own Sake [UPDATED]

Filed under: Academia,Media,Technology — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:17 pm

Can academia be saved from the corporate death cult?

This is the third post here on this subject, but there is one set of villains or enablers we have not talked much about regarding the University of Virginia coup d’ecole: the middlebrow media who just can’t stop trumpeting the glories of “online learning” and especially the entry of Stanford, Penn, and other elite players into the field. For those just catching up to this story, University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan was forced out by the Board of Visitors partly because she “lacked the mettle” to chop programs that didn’t make money, like classics and German, and refused to have the university jump with both feet into online courses like all the other kids. 1

Actually, UVA was already quite a leader in online teaching, research, publishing, going back to the 1990s. Who put the idea into the Board of Visitors’ big CEO heads that the “rapidly accelerating pace of change” required them to shock and awe the campus into “strategic dynamism”?  The Board of Visitors emails obtained by the Cavalier Daily, UVA’s really impressive student newspaper, reveal that Rector Helen Dragas and her cohorts were directly inspired by gushy articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, all venues where they love to celebrate the smashing of any institution by the Internet as long as it is being done to someone else’s institution. One message that jumped out at me appears at right. Jeffrey Walker, a hedge fund billionaire who sits on the board of Berklee College of Music, forwards Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington a Chronicle article (possibly this one) and suggests they go so deep into their research as to watch a YouTube video about the Stanford online course project. 2

At some point the media, and especially the NYT and Chronicle, needs to own up to the role its hyping of online courses and other shiny technological objects has played in poisoning the minds of the business people who sit on governing boards all over academia. So let me address the media for a moment. Reporters and editors covering higher education, it matters what you constantly tout. The busy executives who control our lives in their spare time are much more likely to read your little trend pieces and op-ed columns than they are to sit through a college class or talk to a working professor or read one of our books. Please think through the desirability and plausibility of the higher education apocalypse you are getting the suits so wound up about. Online and hybrid courses will have their place in certain subjects for certain audiences, especially at the introductory level, but until the day that major corporations and elite universities start very publicly recruiting and hiring holders of online degrees for their top positions, brick-and-mortar universities are here to stay. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation may find it groovy to put money into the University of the People (sort of a Wikipedia U., apparently, with courses taught by volunteers), but I am guessing it will be quite a while longer before U of the P alums fill the executive suites at Microsoft, or edit the Chronicle and NYT (Ivy League bastions in my journalism days).  Like most types of “education reform,”  online learning is something that traditionally-educated elites do to others.

At the same time, it is never clear exactly what the process would be by which the “Online Course Tsunami” will destroy conventional academia, unless it is by various Boards of Visitors, Curators, and Regents proactively sacrificing real academics to the the gods of change and “strategic dynamism.” 3 Students enjoy not coming to class, sure, but right now public universities are seeing record enrollments, and the competition for students is based on academic reputation, facilities, and cost, not buzz on the op-ed pages and Chronicle tech columns. (The competition for research money really only turns on the first of those.) Online education might reduce the need for classroom buildings, but I predict that a reputation for herding tuition-paying freshmen into online courses will not turn out to be a very healthy one for a major university to have. (Look for “no online courses” to become a SLAC selling point just like “no classes taught by TAs.) The damage to a sterling academic brand like UVA would be inconceivable, not to mention completely counter-productive. If these board members actually spent much time on campuses outside of meetings they might more easily grasp that students and their parents want the college experience (with the beer, parties, and extracurricular activities) and a prestigious credential, not the pleasure of accessing a shiny new web site.  Board members and administrations clearly think that somehow throwing money at online learning will save them money, against all evidence, but online learning is not the inevitable, annihilating  future of all higher education. It is a current craze that they are rushing to join because they are more familiar with computers and smartphones than scholarship and teaching.

What’s striking to me about the UVA situation, and reminds me of what has happened on my campus with the closing of University of Missouri Press, is that in neither case was there an immediate crisis or catalyst for the sudden, precipitous strike against the core academic values of a great public university. There were ongoing funding issues and new technological challenges to be sure, but nothing that demanded such immediate, self-damaging action. Instead, what we are dealing with is a kind of corporate death cult that worships Change for its sake and does not feel right until some blood is spilled. 4

P.S. “Death cult” is trifle exaggerated, I admit, but here is the excellent song that inspired it, T-Bone Burnett’s “Madison Avenue.” Listen all the way until the end.

The video cannot be shown at the moment. Please try again later.

P.P.S. Check it out: footnotes!

Show 4 footnotes

  1. The Chronicle of Higher Education had devoted so much space to ballyhooing online courses that Sullivan’s go-slow policy became itself a story, for them, back in April.
  2. I notice as I post this that an excellent article by George Washington University’s David Karpf called attention to the same email.
  3. I started writing this “death cult” post independently, but by the end of the day I was borrowing the cult and sacrifice metaphor from Barbara Fister’s wonderful essay, “UVa, the Cult of Change, and the Uses of Fear“, at Inside Higher Education. So goes the Internet.
  4. Alternate edgy title for this post: “Bring Me the Head of the German Department!”

June 19, 2012

The Weakness of Being a Herd of Cats

Power grabs are nasty, brutish, and quick.

They’re intended to overwhelm and surprise the victims. To cause confusion. To frustrate your enemies’ abilities to mount counterattacks.

What we’ve been watching unfold at the University of Virginia during the last two weeks is a nothing less than a coup, carefully planned and staged when nobody was in town and when nobody was watching.

I have no original reporting to add, and I think Timothy Burke nailed it in his post about the incredible ham-handedness of the Board of Visitors as a horde of micro-managers who are either treating UVA in a way they’d never treat their own private businesses, or who are so inept that they’re walking proof that wealth is mainly based on luck in marriage and genetics.

What’s striking to me is how familiar this should be to historians. We’ve seen appointments of ‘midnight judges,’ a Saturday night massacre, a night of the long knives. We’ve seen Bush-Gore, Hayes-Tilden, Adams-Jefferson.

When he learned that UVA Rector Helen Dragas – a real estate executive – had gone to UVA’s President Teresa Sullivan on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend to tell her that 8 of the 15 members of the university’s board were prepared to demand her resignation, a friend of mine thought it couldn’t have been true. Eight of fifteen was “bare majority” and “nobody” would run a university like that. It was too divisive. It flew in the face of everything a liberal education was supposed to stand for at Thomas Jefferson’s school.

Yet some people do operate that way; some just did.

We’re not used to thinking that the bare-knuckle power plays which are routine in politics, corporate boardrooms, and statecraft could be so portable. It’s shocking to think that one rector, weeks before the expiration of her term, would do something like this. Sullivan was in her second year, and by press accounts, Dragas and several members of the university’s business school community began working on what they called the “project” to have her fired. Who knows if Sullivan suspected that Dragas was telephoning board members individually, holding meetings to dodge open records laws and evade other board members who would expose her sleazy m.o. Dragas timed the meeting with Sullivan to coincide with the holiday weekend, after students had left town, when many faculty were away and several big money donors on the board were either overseas or – in one case – recuperating from surgery. To this day, she has offered no clear account of why Sullivan was removed. No specific complaints, no particular flaws or faults. Nothing.

There was a protest on the university’s famed Lawn yesterday. The faculty senate had a meeting with Dragas at which she gave no clear explanation for Sullivan’s removal. They held an overwhelming ‘no confidence’ vote in Dragas soon after.

What’s interesting to me is that Dragas doesn’t care. Just look at this portion of the statement she issued late in the day yesterday:

We recognize that, while genuinely well-intended to protect the dignity of all parties, our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this University. For that reason, let me state clearly and unequivocally: you – our U.VA. family – deserved better from this Board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear.

In case you’re not fluent in Bullshit, that statement is what it looks like when you extend your middle digit in the direction of your iPhone and ask Siri to transcribe it. Dragas has no intention of explaining her reasons. It doesn’t matter to her whether we, or the students, or the faculty, or the alums, or the other members of the Board don’t know why this was hatched.

We’ve been lulled into thinking that a university operates on a consensus model, and maybe we’re about to witness why it should. But my hunch is that trustees will learn from this. Dragas acts like this because she can, and as long as she can, she will. It doesn’t matter to her whether the faculty senate is upset, because right now the faculty senate seems to have no legal standing to do much of anything except pass resolutions with no binding authority or quit their posts.

We like to think that we can rely on the good intentions of board members whose ostensible and historical role has been to serve as caretakers. But we are ill-equipped to deal with a board that goes rogue. By some media accounts, Dragas and her cabal want UVA to start closing departments and to begin shifting 1st- and 2nd-year instruction to an online format. Why? Because several of her conspirators are invested in an online education provider and want that company to be given a preferential role in transforming UVA’s curriculum.

If you wanted to have a discussion about the goals of online ed or the structure of departments, you’d have that conversation with people who work in academia. But if you wanted to just grab some revenue streams for your pals, this is how you’d do it, because at the end of the day you don’t really care about the content or the consequence for the faculty, students, or university – you only care about the money pipeline.

I keep hoping that some rich member of the UVA Board of Visitors is going to step forward and publicly call for Dragas to resign and for Sullivan to be reinstated.

But that hasn’t happened, and even if it did, it would only paper over the enormous problem that’s been exposed during the last two weeks:

Faculty governance institutions, as they are currently constituted, are far too weak to stand up to board members who see the university as an oil deposit or a copper vein. I suspect that Dragas’ enemies on the board know they’ve been beaten. I hope that the smarter ones among them are taking the time to learn the ins and outs of the university’s rulebooks and the Virginia statutes concerning higher ed. I hope the Faculty Senate is lawyering up for a fight.

Remember how we used to wonder how we were going to answer the argument that the university should be run like a corporation?

It turns out that you can just skip over the conversation part.

If this can happen at UVA – and, let’s just say it – IT DID – we should all feel the fierce urgency of now. We’re not used to thinking of ourselves collectively – in practice, many of us are Mugwumps and anti-Federalists – but we’d better start.

The people coming after our institutions, our students, and our jobs are organized, committed, and highly motivated. The rules matter, and if we’re going to survive as a profession, we’d better learn how to play hardball and start figuring out ways to make it impossible for future Helen Dragases to unravel 200 years of traditions in service of a crassly self-interested self-enrichment scheme.


June 18, 2012

We’re a Funny Board, Sully — That’s Why We’re Going to Fire You Last

Filed under: Academia,Ben Carp's Posts,Founders — Benjamin Carp @ 10:26 pm

No doubt you’ve heard about the uproar at the University of Virginia over the sudden ouster of Teresa Sullivan from the presidency.  I left the University years ago, and I don’t regularly follow the news there, so I have no unique insight into the situation.  But I trust Siva Vaidhyanathan’s assessment of her reputation, and his breakdown of how this all went down.  Many people have pointed out the irony that the Board of Visitors may have wanted Sullivan to trim the study of classics and German, when the university’s illustrious founder himself was well versed in languages ancient and modern.

Timothy Burke of Swarthmore is disgustedly dismissive, writing that the UVA decision is “about nothing more than mismanagement and malfeasance” on the part of the Board and the captains of industry that appear to have dominated the decision-making.  ”Doctor Cleveland” sees darker portents at work, which made me wonder why Burke was reluctant to link to his earlier worries about academic meddling:

They already came for the doctors and the psychiatrists. They already came for the lawyers. They already came for the accountants and auditors. They already came for all the professions. Professors are the last to be broken on the wheel, the last to be put at their station in the new assembly lines of the 21st Century Service Economy.

The early Industrial Revolution, in the first decades of the 19th Century, was not focused on the giant factories and mass economies that were characteristic of its later height: it was about replacing artisanal and household production through relatively small efficiencies and reorganizations of labor and property. This is what’s happening now to the professions. The professions were the great engines of bourgeois culture in mass society. They were provided human capital by the massification of education but they also provided services to much of society that couldn’t be duplicated or replaced by industrial capital, services that were seen as public goods in newly democratizing societies.

In the early 20th Century, most of the professions came to see autonomy and self-governance as the precondition of providing high-value artisanal service to both elite and mass clientele. The relations the professions created to clients were simultaneously intimate and impersonal. Patients sought doctors they could personally trust but that trust was a product of the doctor’s calling to a vocation with values and obligations bigger than his own interests. Businesses and governments looked for auditors who were independent but also had a skilled and sympathetic understanding of fiduciary workings. And students looked for teachers who were committed to an educational mission bigger than themselves but who also taught out of a fiercely independent and individualized vision of craft. Think of the exalted archetypes of teaching in 20th Century fiction for examples, like Mr. Chips or David Powlett-Jones.

The post-industrial service and knowledge-based economies of the last thirty years have relentlessly chipped away at the autonomy of the professions, because professions are service. They could no more be allowed a semi-monopolistic right to set their own value than artisans and guilds could be allowed to continue to set the value of clothing or printing in the face of early industrialization.

Burke was initially discussing outsider complaints about the workload of college professor; but it seems to me his words might just as easily apply to college administrators–in the absence of government funding (or any ethos at all of education as a common good), their claims to autonomy and their expectations of patience are doomed to be subject to the whims of big donors and their friends among the trustees.

So of course, everyone who cares about higher education and “contemplative spaces” (Vaidhyanathan) gets nervous when politicians, trustees, donors, and administrators throw their weight around in this way (see Jeff’s earlier post about the University of Missouri Press).  Faculty members much prefer a president who cares about the academic mission and raises boatloads of money, but doesn’t gore anyone’s oxen.  But given the economic climate, it’s not clear we’ll get to keep having such presidents.  One story down in Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik is touting the story of humanist David Dudley at Georgia Southern University, who lamented (in an open letter to colleagues) the revolving door of administrators out to make their names, caring little for the long-suffering faculty, who are “at the point where they say ‘just leave us alone.’”  In years when most faculty salaries have failed to keep pace with inflation, many administrators (and wealthy donors, and random packs of consultants) become particular objects of resentment, as their executive pay packages grow to ever greater heights.  Whatever the outcome for Sullivan, her reputation and financial health should emerge relatively unscathed.  The same can’t be said for the University of Virginia, which is sad for those of us who bear degrees and fond memories from the place.


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