The big news this afternoon in the world of higher education is the reinstatement of Dr. Teresa Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia. Two weeks ago she resigned under pressure, igniting an explosive response from that institution’s students, faculty, and alumni, who rallied immediately to her defense.
Why is this story so important? Because it is bigger than just who is in charge of one university. It represents an early battle in what may become a full-scale war over the integrity and purpose of the 21st-century university. It’s a conflict that has been brewing for several years, especially following the 2006 publication of the Spellings Comission Report.
The Spellings Commission, led by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings under President George Bush, was charged with reviewing the state of post-secondary education in America and recommending strategies for reform. Significantly (fatefully?), the report uses the language of business to describe higher education, calling it “a mature enterprise: increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive” (p. 14). Alleging that most universities are not nimble enough in responding to challenges in the global marketplace, the report warns ominously that, “History is littered with examples of industries that, at their peril, failed to respond to—or even notice—changes in the world around them, from railroads to steel manufacturers” (also p. 14).
Such a “business” perspective is compelling for its focus on “efficiency,” “accountability,” and “return on investment” – certainly urgent considerations in an era where dwindling financial resources are coupled simultaneously with pressures to “keep up” with global competition.
Yet employing business terminology in discussions of higher education is problematic, because . . . what is the product? A degreed person? A well-trained worker? A better-informed citizen? A self-actualized individual? Creation and dissemination of knowledge for the sake of advancing the human race?
All of the above?
If higher education is evicted from its ivory tower and relocated to an industrial park (or perhaps outsourced to a call center in another hemisphere), does it follow logically that an ideal university should be a factory of sorts, where “edu-widgets” can be churned out efficiently, using state-of-the-art manufacturing methods? (Online learning! Flipped classrooms! Social media! Technology!)
Here’s what the “philosophical difference of opinion” cited by Dr. Sullivan as the root conflict between herself and the Board of Visitors – especially Helen E. Dragas, a real-estate developer with a graduate degree from Virginia’s business school – really boils down to: a fundamental schism between polar-opposite views of not only how Virginia should be run but also how ALL American colleges and universities should be run.
More to the point, Virginia’s showdown between the Ph.D. (Sullivan) and the M.B.A. (Dragas) is a precursor of the intense struggle yet to come between scholars and managers over the future of higher education itself.