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The University of Virginia and the Moneychangers in the Temple

June 18, 2012, 6:50 pm

The University of Virginia, 1826
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The President of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, was forced out last week, after mere moments on the job. She was not, it seems, sufficiently business-minded for the University’s Board of Visitors, not sufficiently in tune with the “strategic dynamism” needed in these challenging times.

If this seems woolly, it is. The board, despite a storm of bad publicity, has refused to outline anything more specific. What information is available comes mostly from a leaked email (that pesky “reply all” button bites someone again). If the timing seems short, it is. The organizers of the coup d’academic must have started a while back, having decided that Sullivan, in the months she had been in office, had not turned the ship of the University sufficiently quickly. If this seems to have been mishandled, it was. The Board does not seem to have actually met to dismiss Sullivan. Instead, the head of the Board, Helen Dragas, met with the President, claimed she had enough votes to oust her, and forced Sullivan’s resignation.

This appears to be part and parcel of the continuing corporatization of American higher education, one of the two great outside forces remaking academia at the moment (the other is the standards-ization imposed by federal and states government). The wedge through which this pressure comes is the increasing reliance on donor money of American colleges and universities. That money comes largely from successful alums, with those in business the dominant voice. Many of those donors want to bring the lessons of business to the world of academia and, with their millions, can frequently insist on it.

This process is helped by the cultural obsession with the market that infuses the US. “Market forces” are a supreme adjudicator for Americans, both ordinary and elite alike: “The Market as God,” as Harvey Cox put it. There are few institutions, organizations, or people in America who can escape being subject to the cold breath of market discipline at some time or another.

In the academic context, this influence is often actively pernicious. The foundation of market discipline is failure, not success: unsuccessful businesses are forced out and the path cleared and resources (customers, workers, capital) freed up for the more successful ones (this does not always work perfectly in practice). In the UVA situation, one of the complaints seems to have been that Sullivan was unwilling to cut “obscure academic departments in classics and German.”

I shall have to ignore a series of complications in that demand in order to discuss my larger point. The first complication is the idea that at a university founded by Thomas Jefferson–a man deeply in love with Greek and Latin–members of its Board would consider the classics obscure. The second complication is the idea that members of UVA’s board would find obscure the study of the language of the dominant economic power of Europe, one that is for better or worse (mostly for worse) running the European response to the Great Recession. The third complication is that UVA may, in fact, be required to study both of those subjects by state law and thus pressing the President to cut them seems incitement to a crime of some sort (misdemeanor or felony, I wonder?). The fourth complication is that both disciplines are remarkably cost-efficient. You don’t need lots of expensive heavy machinery, labs, equipment, or supplies to teach either. Instead, you need cheap labor (even tenured faculty are cheap by private standards; we won’t even get into the appallingly low costs of contingent faculty), and some modest infrastructure. Classics at UVA almost certainly makes a profit (based on the number of majors in this story) and German probably does as well.

But, no, I’m skipping over them, complications though they are. They obscure in this instance the purpose of higher education. That purpose is the creation, preservation, and transmission of knowledge, both for the current generation and future ones. This is not merely for current or prospective students, but for American (and even global) society in general. These lofty ambitions are frequently met more in the breach than the observance, and academia has all sorts of corruptions and problems unique to itself, but they nonetheless exist. One of the fundamental parts of that responsibility is actively to study, save, and talk about the obscure, the lost, the unpopular, and the unfashionable. In fact, in many ways that is the most important responsibility. Famous, popular, and fashionable knowledge tends to preserve itself, at least in the short term. Marginalized knowledge disappears. If classics was truly obscure, that would be all the more reason for the University of Virginia to study it. There are, of course, all sort of limits on this, but the fundamental point remains. Cutting things simply because they are obscure, lost, unpopular, and unfashionable, the heart of the market’s discipline, cuts out the core of the scholarly discipline. If business and academia function exactly as they should, especially if they function exactly as they should, they are antithetical to each other. The American secular religion may be business and its temple Wall Street, but scholars and their institutions should avoid genuflecting. There are few universities in the United States with more such responsibility than one birthed by a founding father.

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