Sunday, June 17, 2012

More on the UVA Debacle

An article by UVA professor Siva Vaidhyanathan in Slate, especially the mention of "strategic dynamism," matches what a UVA-affiliated friend described to me yesterday (which may just mean she had read the Slate article by the time we spoke; the only difference I see is that she described more resistance by the faculty to the new budgeting model).  

Herewith some flava:

In the 19th century, robber barons started their own private universities when they were not satisfied with those already available. . . .In the 21st century, robber barons try to usurp control of established public universities to impose their will via comical management jargon and massive application of ego and hubris. At least that’s what’s been happening at one of the oldest public universities in the United States—Thomas Jefferson’s dream come true, the University of Virginia. . . . .

Strategic dynamism, or, as it is more commonly called, “strategic dynamics,” seems to be a method of continually altering one's short-term targets and resource allocation depending on relative changes in environment, the costs of inputs, and the price you can charge for outputs. . . .

The inappropriateness of applying concepts designed for firms and sailboats to a massive and contemplative institution as a university should be clear to anyone who does not run a hedge fund or make too much money. To execute anything like strategic dynamism, one must be able to order people to do things, make quick decisions from the top down, and have a constant view of a wide array of variables. It helps if you understand what counts as an input and an output. Universities have multiple inputs and uncountable and unpredictable outputs. And that’s how we like them. . . .

Both the Kiernan letter and Dragas’ shallow statements discuss the climate facing the university and all public universities in the United States. The problem is, everyone seems to discuss the fact that universities have too little money as if it actually were a matter of climate. . . .It’s not. It’s a matter of politics. States have been making policy decisions for 20 years, accelerating remarkably since the 2007 recession, to cut funding severely, shifting the costs to students and the federal government.  . . .So as tuition peaks and federal support dries up, the only stream still flowing is philanthropy. . . .The reason folks such as Dragas and Kiernan get to call the shots at major universities is that they write huge, tax-deductable checks to them. They buy influence and we subsidize their purchases. . . .
The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.

Universities do not have “business models.” They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.


  1. Solution:

    Shoot all the robber barons.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. The problem with this, Strel, is that in violent revolutions, proffies like us tend not to do so well. They certainly didn't in the French Revolution, and only a little better in the Russian Revolution, although Joe Stalin subsequently assuaged any doubts there. They didn't do worse in the American Revolution probably mainly because there were so few of them there. (While the Founding Fathers may have been unusally loaded with intellectuals for American history, how many of them taught classes?) And then of course there was the Cultural Revolution. No thanks!

    3. Sadly, this would be like trying to cure cancer and even like pulling weeds. Once one is gone, another takes over in place.

      I received some particularly bad news today: our Director of Student Services just got fired.

      I'm betting he got fired for disciplining somebody with influence. Who will replace him? Probably some douche with no balls.

      Our system is doomed.

  2. To my simple mind, business types don't grasp the not-for-profit model, in which service delivery, not profit generation, is the goal. When business types gain control of a university, they disdain the work of those whose outcomes don't result in immediate shiny commodities destined for the marketplace. In my experience, this example includes a college poobah who dismissed adjuncts' desire for office space by pointing out that he could teach in his field with nothing more than a calculator. Great for accounting; not so hot for practically every other field.

    1. He can teach in his field with nothing more than a calculator, but where does he hold office hours to meet with students? Grade papers? Store his textbooks and notes and files?



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