Last week, two years into her term, Teresa Sullivan was removed as president of the University of Virginia. Helen Dragas, rector of the University’s Board of Visitors—what most states call a Board of Regents—explained the situation with a brief statement, “The Board believes that in the rapidly changing and highly pressurized external environment in both health care and in academia, the University needs to remain at the forefront of change.” Of course, this explained nothing about the decision to remove Sullivan, who by all accounts was succeeding as president of the university. Questions about her dismissal turned to outrage when it was revealed that Dragas had pushed this under the cover of darkness, with little deliberation, false pretenses, and the exclusion of other board members. Indeed, the Board never actually met to dismiss Sullivan. Rather, Dragas forced her to resign with the message that she had enough votes to oust her.
This weekend, outrage grew louder when a mistaken e-mail revealed the degree to which this was literally a coup d'état engineered by Dragas and a handful of wealthy donors, with support from members of the business school. Yesterday, 2,000 people—including faculty, administrators, and John T. Casteen, former president of U.Va—gathered on the steps of the Rotunda, the historic center of the University, to protest the decision and pressure the Board of Visitors into reversing its decision.
Reporters in Charlottesville and at the Washington Post have done a great job of covering the scandal, and you should read their work for a fuller picture of what’s going on at the University of Virginia. What they found is that—far from incompetence or mismanagement—Sullivan’s sin was that she acted as a university administrator and not as a business person. As reported by the Post, one of the complaints was that she refused to cut “obscure” and low-revenue programs like Classics and German, and rejected a plan to bring online education to the university. In general, her opponents felt that she was too incremental, too ensconced in academic culture, and too unwilling to bring top-down, corporate-style governance to the university. And so, in the quest for dramatic “change,” Dragas had her removed.
For as much as this has been described as “remarkable” and “unprecedented,” I can’t help but see it as the microcosm of a dynamic playing out in our politics and across our public institutions. The constant denigration of government and public service, coupled with the often unjustified veneration of business, has led to a world where successful capitalists are privileged in all discussions. In an earlier time, we understood that the values and priorities of the market weren’t universally applicable; of course you wouldn’t run a university like a business. It has different goals, serves different constituencies, and more important, has a broad obligation to serve the public.
The same goes for government. The Postal Service has never been a money-making operation, but that’s never been the point; as a country, we agreed that everyone should be connected, even if it doesn’t pay for itself. The value of public-spiritedness trumped the goal of profitability. You could say the same for Social Security, Medicaid, Pell Grants, Amtrak, etc. These programs should be judged by whether they accomplish the goals of our society—a safety net for the poor, help for the young, assistance for the old—and not whether they meet the metrics of a business. If they need reform to meet their goals, then we should move in that direction. But handing to them to the private sector, or running them like a business, won’t automatically solve their problems or make them better.
For the last thirty years, however, we’ve deferred to capitalists and businesspeople in nearly all decisions. A handful of rich people think they know how to run the economy? Great, we’ll let them take care of it. A few billionaires think they know what’s wrong with our education system? Well, we should listen to them! As U.Va professor Siva Vaidhyanathan put it in a piece for Slate:
At some point in recent American history, we started assuming that if people are rich enough, they must be experts in all things. That’s why we trust Mark Zuckerberg to save Newark schools and Bill Gates to rid the world of malaria.
You can see this in the presidential election. Mitt Romney’s chief complaint about Barack Obama is that he’s insufficiently solicitous of business, and unwilling to cede authority to the private sector. For Romney, and the Republican Party, government exists to bolster business and protect wealth, not provide for the public good.
Mixed in all of this, as we see at both U.Va and the country writ large, is a disdain for incrementalism and a mindless desire for “boldness,” even if it’s a cover for radicalism. During her two years, Teresa Sullivan worked to rebuild the foundations of the university, and earn the trust and support of its stakeholders. Change was coming, but it would be a smooth transition that reformed and accommodated existing structures.
Likewise, the “change” of Obama’s 2008 campaign was a move to set our house in order, and prepare our country for the challenges ahead. The Affordable Care Act, if it survives, will set the stage for a more robust welfare state. Dodd-Frank is the beginning of a stronger regulatory state. Cap and trade, if it passed, would have set the country on the path to sustainability. Pundits dismiss this as “timid,” but it’s how a country moves forward, as opposed to the “bold” (but radical and unworkable) ideas of an ideologue like Paul Ryan.
Despite protests and near-universal opposition, U.Va’s Board of Visitors will not reinstate Sullivan. Already, it’s chosen an interim president—the dean of the Commerce School. I expect my alma mater to run and shout its way down the path of “strategic dynamism,” without making progress toward a better future. When I’m feeling pessimistic, I see the same for the United States. We’ll cede our public space to the interests of the wealthy, and replace our public spirit with the cut-throat values of capitalists. We’ll move forward, but at the ultimate cost of a decent, compassionate society.
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