The Corporatization of U.Va.

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.

Comments

FYI: The only reason the USPS is currently "losing money" is because Republicans added a provision requiring them to fund 75 years of retiree benefits in 10 years. When you back out 6.5 years of retiree benefits from each annual P&L, the USPS is in fact profitable. Note that all current package delivery companies [UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc] outsource their doorstep delivery for rural addresses to the post office.. and those organizations have also confirmed that if their charter required them to deliver to those rural addresses, they would no longer be profitable.

A public institution that makes a profit and benefits the public good? Unpossible!

This replacement of Sullivan is purely about ego and power of disconnected arrogant rich people who can't be bothered with messy, uncontrollable things we call "facts." This move isn't "good governance" or "bold strategery" - it's insane stupidity. Hopefully Dragas will soon work for private equity to perfect his strategy of taking a great company and making it barely above average.. I'm always looking for a good short.

This is such a sad -- but, regrettably, not surprising -- story. What I wonder about is Helen Dragas' background...and which of the wealthy entrepreneurial Board of Visitors members is going to give her a chance to make big bucks in return for destroying Thomas Jefferson's university....

Leninist Libertarianism strikes again:

All Power to the Soviets ... er ... Corporate Boards!

Yes, all power to them: a practically accomplished fact, so no need to apply the spur.
I would like to hear you expand logically, beyond the mockery. I think there is actually a case to be made that the present coup at UVa is part of a larger radical movement--what I figure for a "revolution from the rich." But underlying it all, there is a deep vein of continuity between radical leftist and radical rightist ideologies and the practices they give rise to. They seem to start from the same bold action / charismatic leader place in the human psyche and the human way of organizing into groups, and they seem to end up in similar places: collective farms, company towns. To me the differences, from the standpoint of human freedom, do not appear so very large. That's how I see it -- but how do you see it? How thorough do you see this similarity of vanguard-led movements to be?

Jane Jacobs covered all of this in Systems of Survival. Two systems, both necessary, either one doomed to fail if it is used to perform functions for which the other is better suited. Instead of having elites who understand this obvious truth, in the U.S. nowadays we are in thrall to this radical bizarro Soviet mindset, believing for some insane reason that commercial virtues are suited to every need in civilization.

Perfect that Sullivan's replacement is from the Commerce School.

I've got to say it's refreshing to see how many other commenters here see the curious resemblance to Soviet thought present in extreme free market ideologies. This is not an obvious comparison, beyond its zealotry and the example of disaster it offers for us to inspect. The comparison between monopoly capitalism and state capitalism (e.g. communism) may be more thorough and unified as each travels out its asymptote towards perfection than the wing-fang-and-claw warfare between them invites us to think. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge says, "Opposites tend to meet." Company town or _kholkhoz_ (collective farm), it's hegemony.

Maybe it's better to call it "industrial feudalism."

We've seen where communism has led. But could we have a better formula for this industrial feudalism? I've wondered about this lately, as I've seen things develop. In particular I've been thinking about William Gibson's near-future fictions, where he envisioned a world populated by "rich people, poor people, and criminals." History has caught up with much of Gibson's imaginings in the _Neuromancer_ trilogy, driving him to much more contemporary settings for his fiction. But one thing has me wondering: Can a world of rich people, poor people, and criminals go on for very long before it hits the kind of demographic collapse seen in post-Soviet societies (especially Russian?). Consider the pressures on the oceanic ecosystem, e.g., global climate change, mass extinctions on land... Failure of governments may not lead to a corporate-ruled world filled with high-tech human resources departments who hire mercenaries to enable talent defection; it may just ecologically and therefore economically fall apart.

So may be we will "...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." But I think it's a real empirical hypothesis, subject to refutation, if we guess that our society as such will persist in such a caustic atmosphere.

Already in our society we have signs of a radical disconnect from reality in the behavior of the rich. They can't lose, really, so their behavior becomes dysregulated. The poor can't win--same result. Donald Trump thinks Obama wasn't born in the USA--he's a Birther--it makes him look like a fool, but who will tell him that, to whom he will listen? Now, UVa is to be taken four-wheeling by some billionaires with a plan they still will not divulge. Is it a hotshot superstar to be university president, as Siva Vaidnyanathan astutely conjectures? (Secret emergencies like this have their precedents, and having people waiting in the wings is sometimes what precipitates them.) Whatever it is, as governance it is a shocking debacle.

I hope the damage is undone at UVa, but that school is not out of the woods by a long shot. The people charged with their well-being have done them injury without any apparent compensatory amelioration of things: with nothing in trade for the mess. What if it is a symptom of something bigger, though? With organizations like ACTA insinuating themselves into the academic scene, it seems like the UVa mess is happening in the context of a much broader and in some sense ideological power grab for the American mind, via the country's institutions of higher learning. It isn't the intentions ultimately that worry me so much as the disconnect from reality. Certainly there is malefaction against what some perceive to be "hippy" elements remaining in our culture. But mind the gap... mind the disconnect. Maybe we're seeing an early salvo of a kind of revolution from the rich.

To make matters worse, our elusive governor Mr. McDonnell, is traipsing around the landscape sucking up to Romney trying to gain the post as VP republican cnadidate in November.

Instead he should attend to state business and there is no greater business at present than the mess at UVA.

He should issue a public apology to Dr. Sullivan and give her a substantial raise in pay. Whatever pay raise it might be, it will pale compared to the loss of financial support form alumni.

There is no integrity on the current BoV. They should be fired beginning with the DragonLady and her henchmen who engineered this mess. As witness to the lack of integrity, read about the mess Dragas has made with her own business regarding defective and un-insurable materials used in one of her latest construction projects.

The reputation of UVA has been drastically tarnished all due to a few unethical and immoral individuals who cannot see beyond their wallets and inflated egos.

The large perspective and long view of the main article here is well framed and the argument well considered and stated. Good article.

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