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Doctor Cleveland's picture

Teresa Sullivan and UVa

I'm out of the country right now, but even so I can't avoid the uproar over Teresa Sullivan being pushed out as President of the University of Virginia after only two years.

Her forced resignation seems to have taken the campus entirely by surprise, and she was widely regarded as doing an excellent job. The university's Board of Governors (composed entirely of political appointees, mostly major donors to the governor) was first said to have acted unanimously, but now seem to have never actually held a meeting or taken a vote. (Sullivan was evidently sacked at an "emergency meeting" held by 3 of the 16 Board members.) And the Board's chair or Rector, Helen Dragas, has been extremely bad at explaining the reasons for this sudden move. Kris Olds at GlobalHigherEd has the most extensive round-up of the information known to this point, and asks if it still makes sense for a board of gubernatorial appointees to have this much power over a university now that the state only provides 10% of the budget.

How this shakes out in the end is far from clear. But at the very least, this is a public-relations disaster by the Board, and may do meaningful damage to UVa's reputation. It's pretty clear that the Board leadership, dominated by business executive types, wanted more "visionary," top-down MBA-style management (one person who's boasted about working on the "project" of removing Sullivan has thrown around the phrase "strategic dynamism"), but they've provided a good lesson in how "bold," go-it-alone decision making can burn an organization.

I also don't know how you recruit a truly promising replacement for Sullivan under these circumstances. Unless Dragas has secretly lined someone up in advance, any good prospect for UVa's presidency would have to be wary about the job. But any replacement that the faculty and alumni perceived as having been lined up beforehand would be tainted by this process, and face significant management and fund-raising challenges.

But one thing especially deserves mention:

This is very unusual for a school with Virginia's reputation.

Boards of Trustees do often push for more "transformative" and "visionary" leadership, hiring and supporting college presidents who fit the model of leadership promoted by popular business-management books. But "transformative" management figures much more heavily in schools with weaker reputations, while prestigious and established universities are much less likely to have leadership talk about reinventing the whole university. (Why reinvent Princeton? Princeton is doing fine.) You are far more likely to hear about the president of Prairie State College (Lonely Rock campus) as a visionary CEO, if you ever hear of him or her, than you are to hear that about the president of Yale. (Yale's had the same president for decades, and as far as I know he talks a lot about excellence, but much less about transformation.)

There are a lot of reasons for this. The better-established a school is, the more power various individual stake-holders have, and the more buy-in the leadership needs from those different power centers. A rich school has more big donors to keep donating; a school with prize-winning faculty members has to keep them from leaving for a better offer; a school with a loyal alumni base has to make sure that those alumni believe that the school is continuing its best traditions. Wealth and prestige come with more people to keep from alienating. And reputation itself matters. The less well-regarded a school, the easier it is to sell the idea that it needs to be shaken up and transformed. A CEO-style university president of an obscure college can be imagined by the Trustees (and himself), as a bigger deal than the school itself. But, as I believe John Quincy Adams first said, ain't nobody at Harvard bigger than Harvard.

The University of Virginia is much more like Harvard or Yale, in terms of reputation, than it is like my hypothetical Prairie State at Lonely Rock. It is nationally ranked, with many departments ranked in the top ten: truly one of the Public Ivies. It has a large, well-heeled body of deeply loyal alumni. It has faculty who are leaders in their fields. It was personally founded by Thomas Jefferson. Some of the campus buildings were designed by Jefferson himself.  This isn't some low-profile satellite campus.

And for that reason, the struggle over Virginia will suggest a great deal about the fate of higher education, and especially public higher education, in America. What the Board of Visitors would (apparently) like to do there has already been done at schools that don't get any love, and no one's raised much of a fuss because, basically, the people who make decisions in our society don't give a damn what happens to the students at those schools. If you're going to Prairie State at Lonely Rock, elite decision-makers have already written you off because you couldn't get into a better school. They won't say this, of course. They will just talk about what is best for you, and what a student like you really needs, which of course is never what their own college-age children need but what is appropriate to someone of your lowly station. And naturally, what someone in your lowly station needs is not to have your aspirations set too high.

But UVa is not a school for people that our policy elite wants to write off. UVa is for students that Virginia's power brokers view as actual students, with actual futures. And the University is something in which the state, as a whole, has long taken great pride. Giving Mr. Jefferson's University the Prairie State-Lonely Rock treatment, if it sticks, will be a sign that what's been happening at Prairie State-Lonely Rock will soon happen everywhere in public higher education. There will no longer be a high-quality option offered at a few flagship schools while the other public universities became playgrounds for whatever educational and management fads are popular among neoliberal business types. All of the public universities will be neoliberalized, with strategically dynamic visionary CEOs free to run the places as they choose. Maybe that will be great. Maybe it won't. But if it doesn't go well, there won't be any other kind of public university to choose from.

What might Rector Helen Dragas want a "visionary" president to transform about Virginia? Early (and very much incomplete) signs suggest three things:

1) An aggressive move into E-learning

A lot of speculation has gone into the high-profile topic of e-learning, which the tea leaves suggest the Rector wanted in a big way while Sullivan was attending to other issues (like fixing the school's finances, coping a big enrollment increase mandated by the state, and trying to deal with the fact that much of UVa's already-smallish faculty is nearing retirement). This has gotten attention because e-learning has been in the news a lot, but is likely a minor factor. [UPDATE: Boy, was I wrong about that last sentence. The Cavalier Daily has gotten the Rector and Vice-Rector's e-mails through FOIA, and they took some pretty shallow op-eds about online ed VERY seriously.]

If Sullivan was moving slowly on e-learning, there are good reasons, not least the fact that e-learning is expensive and there's already budgetary strain on day-to-day academic operations. One of the Rector's comments suggests that the new MOOCs at places like Stanford and Harvard have impressed her, but those MOOCs are money-losers by their very definition. They are exercises in public outreach and brand-building. (And the schools offering them don't give academic credit for them.) Investing heavily in MOOCs right now would cost serious money and return no revenue at all.
Meanwhile, the for-profit model of online education pioneered by places like the University of Phoenix does reduce the cost of instruction per student, but has much lower student success rates and would be a real danger to UVa's brand. (UVa's long-term health is about its prestige and desirability.) If UVa makes a successful move into online learning they, like the rest of us, will have to take the time to figure out a better model than the ones currently on the table. This is an area that calls for deliberate haste, as that great management guru Caesar Augustus would say. Wanting to see a big investment in online learning right now is maybe the essence of over-excitable management.

2. There are rumors that the Board wanted to chase high-profile star faculty.

Sullivan had gotten it across to the Board that Virginia needed to replace the wave of faculty due to retire over the next decade. She had also pointed out to them that UVa's current faculty stars were extremely vulnerable to poaching by richer schools, and that because UVa is on the small side for a faculty of its caliber, many departments could plummet in the rankings if only one or two of its stars left. Sullivan's approach was to find ways to hold onto the star professors without getting into bidding wars that UVa would lose anyway, using things like interdisciplinary research centers to keep the best faculty tied to Virginia. (The thinking being that if faculty get involved in interesting long-term research projects with other professors at Virginia, they will be less likely to jump ship.) In other words, Sullivan knew she couldn't compete on salary, so she sensibly looked at the other things that motivate faculty but which cost less money. And in her first two years, she'd already set up two such centers.

Sullivan's approach to rebuilding the faculty could be paraphrased as "draft, train, and retain," which is the most effective low-cost solution. Her model envisioned very careful hiring to get the best new faculty fresh from doctoral programs, helping them grow into stars, and having them retire at Virginia. That approach requires superb execution, but it's by far the most affordable way to build a strong faculty. And of course, that approach requires patience and time. There are hints that at least some of the Board wanted to chase big-name star faculty right away, which by necessity means throwing money at those pricey free agents at the same time the school is in budget trouble.  If this is even partly true, it suggests that the MBAs on the Board were pushing a riskier, more expensive, and less fiscally prudent (but flashier) recruitment strategy on the less "visionary" and "dynamic" PhD charged with managing the university. Recruiting what Dragas calls "a stellar new president" would be the first such star hire.

3. Most importantly, the Board wanted "Program Prioritization"

It's clear, according to the Washington Post today, that the Board leadership wanted Sullivan to make large budget cuts, including cutting entire academic departments. This is presented by the Post as cutting the money-losing units, but the truth is likely more complicated.

Dragas's remarks have included references to "prioritization and reallocation." This refers to a process currently fashionable in academic management called "program prioritization," a centralized process which evaluates every academic program and department in the university, rates them, and recommends that some be cut or reduced while others be funded more. The point of the exercise is to shift funding from one area to another. (Dragas has also talked about "redirecting funds.") This sounds, on the surface, like protecting the bottom line, but circumstances at Virginia suggest the opposite.

"Program prioritization" is the mutant offspring of the "building spires" model of academic management. "Building spires" suggests that a school can't be good at everything, so that to grow best it should invest its money in one or two signature programs that eventually become renowned for excellence. Those "spires" then build the school's overall reputation, bringing in money to build up one or two more programs until they become "spires," and so on. "Prioritization" turns this around to try to create favored programs while cutting money, rather than adding it. Instead of funding the non-favored programs at a status quo rate while investing any new funds in the favorites, "program prioritization" cuts funds from some programs to put the money into the one or two that the administration wants to turn into "spires." The central management handbook on this process (a book which, God help me, I have actually read), states this principle outright: "The main source of new resources for programs is from existing programs." 

Sullivan had just installed a set of new financial reforms that is just the opposite of this rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul system. She had decentralized UVa's finances, allowing each school and department to keep the revenue it generated but also forcing the schools and departments to live within their means. It's a way of promoting fiscal responsibility from the ground floor up. Departments that generate a lot of tuition, bring in a lot of grants, or raise a lot of donations could grow, and departments that didn't would have to find a way to do better. This is much like Harvard's famous "every tub on its own bottom" fiscal principle, which means that the university's various schools never subsidize one another. The Law School keeps the money it generates, and so do the Medical School and the College, and if, say, the School of Ed is having budget troubles it solves them itself instead of taking money away from Law or Business. This really is a live-within-your-budget system. 

But this, apparently, is not what Dragas wanted. Program prioritization allows the central administration to take money from profitable units and redirect it to unprofitable units that the administration favors. If the Rector disliked the financical-responsibility model that Sullivan had installed and is talking about "prioritization" it suggests that she wants to take money from financially sound units that she doesn't value in order to finance money-losing glamor projects.

I know that this is exactly the reverse of what everyone expects, so let me repeat it. The business-school types on the Board favor a system that cuts funds from profitable departments and funnels that money to less profitable ones.

The humanities, for example, sound impractical and "wasteful," but are often quite cost-effective, especially at the lower levels. A 300-student lecture on Shakespeare or the American Civil War brings in a fair amount of tuition with very little overhead. Some of the money that humanities departments generate this way subsidizes their smaller advanced classes, so that seniors can have face-time with the faculty, but there's still some money left over that colleges often use to fund smaller and more expensive majors, like physics. Every school does some of these so-called cross-subsidies, but often the rule is that departments might cross-subsidize but colleges or schools do not. And Sullivan evidently just limited the amount of those subsidies within schools and colleges.

If this displeased the Board, it's because they don't want certain high-profile programs to have to live within their means. For example, some early comments have suggested that UVa's highly expensive and unprofitable Medical Center might be one of the favored programs. If so, the thinking would be to make cuts in Virginia's undergraduate program to help underwrite its struggling hospital. That is what the business-school graduates on the Board may want to do in the name of financial prudence. If it sounds like the opposite of sound financial management to you, well, I don't have an MBA.

From a position utterly removed from U Va politics, may this become a Koman/Planned Parenthood moment?

You know, the Komen comparison, occurred to me too, JR. It's the same kind of half-smart overreach, and potentially the same kind of backlash.

My position is also removed from UVa politics; I've never worked or studied there. My post is an attempt to understand what's been reported in the press using what I do know about how universities generally work.

The biggest sign so far that the Board has lost control and may have to back down is that the Provost spoke at the Faculty Senate meeting last night, publicly questioning the Board's commitment to basic UVa values such as "honor and integrity," and threatened to resign:

"I now find myself at a defining moment, confronting and questioning whether honor, integrity, and trust are truly the foundational pillars of life at the University of Virginia. I find myself at a moment when the future of the University is at risk and what our political leadership value in the University is no longer clear. Much has appeared in the press over the last week, and the reputational consequences will be with us for many years to come. But I am now wondering whether my own beliefs about the values of higher education are consistent with our Board.

The Board actions over the next few days will inform me as to whether the University of Virginia remains the type of institution I am willing to dedicate my efforts to help lead.”

That, as Joe Biden would say, is a big deal.

Thanks, Doc, for such a thoughtful analysis.  My own thoughts have scarcely progressed beyond WTF and how hurtful to the University this move will be.  If the Post article is correct, President Sullivan's ouster began after only a few months in office.  What does that say about the BOV and their original selection?  Sullivan had a long, visible record of excellence in all the relevant administrative and academic aspects, so I guess what they failed to see was her independence and her ability to pull together a  team and community that would gladly follow her in boosting Virginia's already sterling reputation.  Too bad the board doesn't like either her vision or her success. 

Thanks for the comment, Walter. What the Post reports is that Dragas began planning to get rid of Sullivan last October, so about a year into her tenure there, but that's still very, very early in a university presidency. It's amazing how much Sullivan had actually gotten done in just two years.

Part of the apparent explanation, and it's embarrassingly stupid, is that Dragas wasn't head of the Board, or in line to head the Board, when they hired Sullivan. The system is that board members serve four year terms, renewable once,  and someone serves two years as Vice-Rector, before becoming Rector for two years. But the person who was Vice-Rector when Sullivan was hired didn't get reappointed to the Board.

So Dragas got made Rector, even though no one had planned for that and (from what I can tell), she hadn't served the usual apprenticeship.

What it looks like is that Dragas decided that she was now head of the Board, so she could make the decisions (the executive model), although obviously the way the office is arranged is more of a first-among-equals deal. (The short term for the Rector means an emphasis on consensus and continuity.) No smart person, unexpectedly given this job, would attempt a major reversal of big decisions that the Board had just taken, but Dragas did. And she it's clear that she did it while scheming with various non-Board members rather than building a strong consensus with the actual Board members.

Here's the kicker: Dragas's own term on the Board expires in two weeks. Then the Governor will be forced to either reappoint her, which will be read as backing her, or cut her loose, which will be read as disapproval of this move.

Poor Meryl.

 

Nope, amen. But I think I know the type.

Jones's op-ed is a masterpiece of incoherent thinking. I especially like that he's complaining about faculty not being paid enough, as if this change would help that problem.

And while he is a whale of a donor, UVa has even bigger donors, some of whom are now threatening to withhold donations until the Board gets sacked.

That, my friends, is a big Joe-Biden deal.

In the investing world, Paul Tudor Jones is a big deal, guru-type. Not as famous with the public as Soros or Rogers, but a legend among traders.

I believe his wife is a big deal in the Ashtanga Yoga world and infused much money into the community--paying Jois and others big salaries--and caused much resentment among the faithful.

Ah money...maybe it is the root of all evil.

Sure. But that op-ed itself is not an example of intelligence. It is not, as I said, coherent. It reads like the Underpants Gnomes wrote it. 1) Fire Sullivan 2) ??? 3) Greatness!

Being very smart about one thing does not make you a universal expert. That doesn't mean you can't argue for ideas outside your area of expertise. But being a hedge-fund guru doesn't make you a general all-purpose guru. And lack of humility

I'd also suggest, humbly, that economic strategies that work very well in one enterprise, such as hedge-fund trading, might work poorly or indifferently when applied to another enterprise. Education and research are both enterprises that move slowly and are focused on long-term rewards. Educating students takes time, and waiting for your well-educated alumni to become successful alumni takes more time. Research is faster, but still reckoned in years instead of weeks. So short-term economic thinking can be disruptive and counter-productive.

Just responding with info to "anybody you know?"

Whoops. My bad.

Doc, this is one of the best round-ups I think I have seen... excellent.

One thing has really struck me about this though... why isn't the fact that Teresa Sullivan had an academic relationship with Elizabeth Warren getting more play? They co-authored the books "As We Forgive Our Debtors: Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in America" and "The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt" as well as a paper in the Harvard Law and Policy Review entitled "The Increasing Vulnerability of Older Americans: Evidence from the Bankruptcy Court." 

Given the extreme hostility Wall Street has towards Warren and her ilk, as well as the fact that this was apparently engineered by a cadre of Darden alumni including big money Wall Streeters like Kiernan and Jones, I am stunned that this hasn't been investigated. There isn't a lot of short-term gain here for them, but in the intermediate and long term the motivations are much more clear: universities like UVA help provide the intellectual frameworks and heft for concepts and movements such as changes financial regulation and growing inequality. Furthermore, Sullivan has been mentioned in circles as possibly having a future in either state or federal political roles (much like Warren). Thus, there are significant incentives for the Darden types to snuff out her tenure at UVA (particularly before some center or the like on financial reform, income inequality, or the middle class gets started) and put a damper on her career.

I admit that sounds a little conspiracy theorist-ish, but given that one such secretive plot just got hatched (her ouster in general) and that the rationales provided to date simply don't make a lot of sense, how could this not be taken seriously as a contributing factor? 

Thanks for the comment, Dan. If you feel strongly about that theory, I encourage you to investigate it.

As for me, it requires too many links and not enough clear motive. (Why would a Democrat like Dragas, do this for example?) And why would the Warren-Sullivan connection be worth punishing Sullivan over? Who would gain by that?

I generally focus my blog, when I can, on broader explanations, that are either structural (about the way systems work), or ideological (about the basic unexamined assumptions people make). To blog well about backstairs deals, I'd have to spend a lot of time in back of the stairs, and I prefer the fresh air.

Small point to add...maybe or maybe not significant.

I believe Michael Mann of hockey stick fame was working or teaching at UVA at once point.

Our VA DA, Cuccinelli, who was also instrumental in bringing the constitutional case against ACA, went after UVA to turn over Mann's emails/papers from that period.

The pretext, I believe, was the state's obligation to look into how VA's public money was being spent. So I'm more than a little shocked that we taxpayers only contribute 10% to what is ostensibly a state school.

I believe UVA fought them off, but maybe the tide is turning...

The 10% figure (which is evidently rounded up) is both shocking and completely normal. Taxpayers no longer fund the public universities. That's the story everywhere.

People have brought up the Cucinelli angle, but Dragas is a Democratic appointee. So it's hard to see why she'd carry water for him, rather than for (say) Tim Kaine, who appointed her. There are real ideological divides in this story, but they're not strictly partisan divides.

The larger question is about public funding of universities and public control. One question that's been raised, as I mentioned above, is whether the Board of Visitors needs to have some members who aren't appointed by the State, since the State no longer pays the bills.

It seems to me that your key paragraph is the one about the relationship between the university and its stakeholders. One wonders whether that was the real problem here: not that Sullivan was in sufficiently transformative, but rather that she did not build or maintain the necessary relationships with those who truly run the University. One wonders also whether, in the case of a public university, these stakeholders might not have a distorted view of the public interest that is driven by business interests or even sheer idiosyncrasy, while having disproportionate power over the university. This is a problem in higher education governance that is bigger than U.Va.

Thanks for the comment anonymous. I take it that by "stakeholders" you mean only the sixteen members of the Board. I, of course, used the term to mean all of the various stakeholders of a public university: the alumni, the faculty, the State Legislature, and the students, for a start. This is the typical way the term "stakeholder" is understood in this context; Helen Dragas's statement today used the word very much as I did.

As far as the argument that Dragas et al. were not looking for someone more transformative, but that Sullivan failed to cultivate her relationship with the Board properly, well, that idea ignores facts in evidence (Dragas and her supporters have made public statements about what they wanted) and postulates other facts without evidence. So, I'm not convinced there. Anyway, it's hard to fault a president for not cultivating the board enough when the firing is so premature. Firing a university president two years into the job without some major malfeasance is basically unprecedented.

Rather than blaming Sullivan for not cultivating a narrow constituency, why not blame Dragas for not getting all the stakeholders on board? Because it's clear today that she's lost the stakeholders: alumni enraged, major donors threatening to withhold donations, the faculty senate demanding her resignation, the local state reps of her own party angry with her, and an elder statesmen like John Casteen standing on the Rotunda steps scolding the Board. A total disaster, really. Even some of the Board have apparently asked Sullivan to rescind her resignation.

Dragas has badly overestimated her hand, and her charge as Rector. It's frankly, not an executive position, but a first-among-equals chairperson role. She clearly engineered Sullivan's ouster with a small group, and managed it by avoiding open discussion. It's clear she thought about how to get the result she wanted by finessing the existing mechanisms, rather than getting the genuine buy-in she needed. And the result is a disaster both for the school and for Dragas personally. She's apparently been discussed as contender for state-wide office, but her political career in Virginia is dead after this.

Doc, when I said "stakeholders," I didn't mean the Visitors.  Nor did I mean the faculty, legislature or students -- although surely the faculty and students are affected most directly by the University's success.  I meant the people who have power over a public university because of their economic power in the state.  They might manifest their influence through major donor status, or a prominent role in the foundation, whether as officer, lawyer or banker.  They have far more power over a university than a mere governor or visitor does.  Governors and visitors come and go.

Upon arrival, a smart public university president is going to figure out who these people are(there are probably a dozen or so of them) and keep them happy.  If she doesn't, then she's going to have trouble. 

One hypothesis is that Sullivan failed to build the relationships with these people that would have given her leverage over the Visitors, and was thus exposed when they came after her.  An alternative hypothesis is that it was the Visitors, not Sullivan, who overstepped their bounds with this constituency.  We will find out whether that was the case in the coming days, when Visitors stay or go, and depending on whether others intervene in the selection of the new president.   

Well, anonymous, that is still a narrow view of "stakeholders." And your argument still suffers from the fact that you have no evidence for it and ignore contravening evidence. The emphasis on "transformative" and "bold" leadership can be confirmed from multiple sources. It's also not clear that the Board faction had the whale donors or the economically-influential Virginians lined up. Since there are public statements from 7-,8-, and even 9-figure donors who are clearly infuriated by the move, it's clear that even by your definition all the "stakeholders" don't come down on one side.

This was not a move by a broad class of stakeholders, but by a small group. (Including John Paul Tudor, linked above, who was perhaps disgruntled when he gave $12 million for a Yoga Center and Sullivan turned it into an interdisciplinary "Contemplative Studies" center that included yoga, but would not be an academic embarrassment to the university. What Sullivan did there is pretty much the definition of how a university administrator should deal with that kind of gift.)

As I said in the original post, the beauty of a great school like UVa is that no one is bigger than the school. Even the biggest name on the faculty is just one star among many. Even the biggest financial donor is dwarfed by the rest of the donors. (JPT's $12 million gift is equivalent to what UVa has been routinely raising every two weeks.) A small cabal of deciders always has too narrow a power base to go it alone. I'd also like to come back to your exclusion of faculty and students from the "stakeholders" category. You write:

Nor did I mean the faculty, legislature or students -- although surely the faculty and students are affected most directly by the University's success.

You seem to presume that the University's success affects the faculty and students, but that the faculty and students do not influence UVa's success. If I have that right, you really misunderstand how universities work. The faculty, and even the students, certainly affect a school's long-, short-, and middle-term success, including its financial health.

It's clear that Sullivan's antagonists are concerned with UVa's rankings. (JPT's editorial kvetches that over the last quarter-century the school has fallen to #25.) But those rankings are largely based on faculty reputation and the makeup of the student body. Virginia has excellent faculty of whom many are, essentially, making salary concessions in order to stay at Virginia. (Consuming some of their market wages in happiness, as economists say.) A good deal of the strategy being discussed, by both Sullivan and her opponents, is how to retain those faculty and how to attract more like them. Everyone involved in this dispute agrees on that strategic reality, because if the cream of that faculty gets skimmed off by rival schools, Virginia's reputation and ranking will fall, and with its ability to attract premier students, faculty, and, in the long run, capital from donors. (As I've blogged before, prestige is the key to attracting donations over time.)

And of course, UVa's faculty is about to be raided. Evidently faculty are already getting recruiting calls. As Sullivan told the Board yesterday, administrators at rival schools are now setting aside the cash to raid Virginia's faculty over the next academic year. Of course they are. In their shoes, I'd do the same.

And while it's easy to dismiss the happiness of current students, no university can ignore the happiness of prospective students. They are where the tuition money comes from. Even more importantly, the university's rankings are partly based on how selective they can afford to be in admissions. If the average SAT/ACT scores of your entering class goes down, your ranking goes down. And those scores do go down when fewer students apply. If your current students are unhappy about something for a few weeks, they get over it. If your current students are very, very unhappy about something for months on end, that unhappiness eventually gets communicated to prospective students, who become less likely to come.

One place where the Board's amateur-hour drama has almost certainly hurt UVa is in the ability to attract quality students from out-of-state, who are crucial in the current model of unfunded public education. Just to keep its budget intact, UVa needs to charge a whole bunch of students out-of-state tuition. That's not a problem for a great university like Virginia. But it is a problem for a great university that's suddenly going through pointless turmoil, like Virginia. Will UVa still find enough out-of-state students to fill those beds and pay that tuition? Probably. But they'll have to dig deeper in the pool, taking less qualified students. That means the quality of a UVa education will go down, both in reality and on paper. Taking non-Virginians with lower GPAs and SATs means falling in the rankings. And decline like that can take on inertial momentum, because once you're no longer perceived as a top school it becomes harder to attract the people who would help you climb back up the ladder.

 

With regards to the ranking comment, I think it's worth stressing a major point that Tudor left out of his op/ed. Although UVA's over all ranking has dropped to #25, its ranking for public schools is tied for #2. It's been tied for #1 or #2 for as long as I can remember. (Also, let's not forget that these are US News & World Report rankings. I still can't believe how much traction they get!)

This really has little to do with your point, it's just I wanted to put it out there, for obvious reasons.

http://www.virginia.edu/uvatoday/newsRelease.php?id=18846

Personally, I trust the faculty more than I do the current Board of Visitors.

Dr. Cleveland -

Thank you for an excellent article that shows your understanding of the situation and gave me some new ways of looking at the problem at UVa.

I'm a multi-degree alumnus, and I'm deeply saddened by the harm that I think this power play will bring to the University of Virginia. 

I am particularly intrigued by your third (and most counter-intuitive) point. Given the Board (or at least the Rector's) ham-fisted handling of this situation and the apparent desire to apply wildly inapplicable models to the "pursuit of excellence" at U.Va, I instinctively distrust their vision for the university.  If "program prioritization" is part of that vision, and I agree that it seems to be one of the pillars of Dragas' vision, I'd like to understand more about it. 

While the whole concept is counter-intuitive, I am most intrigued by the assertion that the humanities are a profitable "pillar," from which revenue can be "borrowed" to fund other programs.  I had always understood that the College of Arts and Sciences, the home of the humanities at UVa, and its graduate college parents, were  the least profitable "schools" in the University -- graduate humanities faculty don't bring in much grant money, and while the alumni base is large, it's not as (relatively) affluent or as generous as the alumni of other "colleges" at U.Va.  Perhaps what I've read focuses only on giving, though, not on a ratio of tuition to cost. 

The "cost" of the Medical Center is another counter-intuitive piece of this puzzle. I have recently read that UVa Health System was operating at a profit (article from local Charlottesville paper here: http://www2.dailyprogress.com/news/2011/sep/15/uva-health-system-profits-soar-ar-1313370/ ). When you say "Medical Center", do you mean the hospital, the Med School, something else entirely, or some combination of the three?  Thanks.

Again, I appreciate your taking the time to share your view on the fiasco unfolding in Charlottesville.  You offered a fresh and interesting perspective that helped me to see the situation in a new way.

Thanks,

Chris

Chris brings up an interesting point. I'll put my devil's advocate hat on for a second.

Should a program's profitability 'score' give consideration to the post-graduation donations of the alumni base it generates? Are these 'spires' in the STEM areas investments in future cash flow?

/DA hat off.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the original post and the discussion. It's an unfortunate subject matter, but it is a great case study in the issues facing public education.

Thanks for your comment, Chris. And I'm very sorry to see what's happening at Virginia. Let me say up front that I don';t have any insider information. If I were a UVa insider, I would not be blogging about UVa under a pseudonym (and I don't use this blog to discuss my actual employer).

I'm basing this post about what I know about how universities run in general, and what had been more or less reliably reported by the press.

So I might be wrong about the Medical Center. I certainly have some other details not quite right (Sullivan has done some online-learning stuff, although not in the big exciting way her opponents wanted). And I haven't seen budget numbers for any of these schools or departments.

But this is what I know about just about every school: the humanities are a profit center, because their overhead is so low. This seems counter-intuitive if you think of it like a student choosing a major or a professional school. It's easy to assume that the fields where graduates get more lucrative first jobs are where the money is. But that doesn't follow at all. There's no connection between how financially profitable something is to learn and how profitable it is to teach. Schools often lose money, or just break even, on the "practical" majors and turn a profit on the "impractical" classes.

English literature is very cheap to teach. You have a professor, you have some students, the students buy some books and read them: you're in business. Engineering programs, on the other hand, are crazy expensive. You need labs and equipment and lab staff and all kinds of things. (And on average you're paying the engineering professors significantly more than the English professors.) The overhead for STEM is very high, especially when you consider the research programs that it takes to keep STEM faculty happy. (The overhead on humanities research is also usually low. I did some humanities research today. It involved reading books.) This is how UVa became stronger in the humanities than the STEM fields in the first place. They were building a general-purpose university, but their money bought them stronger humanities departments than STEM departments.

It's true, humanists don't bring in much grant money, but STEM grant money gets eaten up, and sometimes more than eaten up, by the research projects that bring the grant money in. And schools spend to attract the grant money.

So it's about overhead. But a school can charge the same amount of tuition for 3 credits of low-overhead Art History class as it can charge for 3 credits of a high-overhead course in Organic Chemistry. Yes, the school might charge a small lab fee for organic chem, but if they were turning a profit on that tuition, would they need the fee? So, for example, First-year composition classes at many universities are a major revenue generator. They're cheap to teach, and you can charge the same amount per credit hour as you could for a computer-science course that required lots of hardware and server time. But I guarantee you, all the revenue from teaching comp doesn't stay in the comp program, or go to giving the comp teachers raises. It goes to soak up the red ink elsewhere.

German and Classics at UVa may well be profitable programs. They are likely not the profit centers that other humanities disciplines are because they spend a lot of time on the most expensive kind of humanities teaching, which is language instruction. (Language instruction is labor-intensive, and requires a high degree of professional competence, i.e., a teacher who is not only fluent in the target language but speaks it with a native or near-native accent.) At worst, those programs might run a small deficit (because a small department of humanists can really only run a small deficit), so much so that eliminating them would actually not save much money.

(That's before we factor in things like endowed chairs. Many of the Classics professors have professorships funded by the investment returns on money donated specifically to fund a chair in classics. The money can only be used for that.)

I know this does not seem intuitive. But people like to talk about teaching the humanities as "wasteful" or "expensive" because they don't like the humanities and think they're impractical. (Speaking German doesn't strike me as a useless skill, but whatever.) When people say that teaching the humanities is too expensive, they're not really being practical. They're being emotional.

As an adjunct teaching required composition courses at a large (private) university, I feel qualified to comment here. I'm paid about $5k to teach a composition course of 19 students. If you add up the amount those students nominally pay for the course (as a fraction of each of their total tuition bills), it comes to about $90k. Of course, that's assuming they're all paying full freight, which is unlikely. Let's assume the total figure is something more like $45k. I can't imagine that my course's portion of ongoing administrative, building maintenance costs, etc. tallies up to $40k, so clearly, my course is thoroughly subsidizing something.  There are two required courses at the university: both are housed in the English dept., and about 90% of both are taught by adjuncts. That makes the English dept. quite a profit center. From an administrative standpoint, it's brilliant; the English dept. can call more shots than you'd expect, because they're funding all kinds of stuff. From an ethical standpoint (underpaying a cadre of fire-at-will instructors to deliver a universally-shared experience for undergraduates) it's reprehensible. Unfortunately, it's such a common practice at universities that few (except the adjuncts) question its ethics. (And e-learning is just the same thing on a larger scale: I know of another local university whose music education e-learning program funds the entire fine arts dept., which waits to hear about e-learning enrollments before sending acceptance letters.)

Thanks for the insight, Steve. That's an excellent illustration. Our non-academic readers should know that this kind of arrangement has become standard. Indeed, many such arrangements involve even lower wages for even larger larger classes.

This post didn't have time to talk about the scandal of adjunct labor, but one of the things that has happened over the last decades is an increasing demand on the humanities to turn higher and higher profits, the better to fund other things. And hiring adjuncts, rather than full-time faculty, has been a major result of that.

Cleveland comments are very convincing. Too bad the good doctor has such a problem with "business types." We nasty business types know that whatever moves are taken, they are senseless unless they support the strategy. Strategies are senseless unless they are meant to achieve objectives. Objectives are senseless unless they are defined and measurable. In UVA's case (I have no relationship with UVA), it appears that the BOV is charged with defining objectives, taking its counsel from whatever sources its individual members choose.

How's that strategy working out for them?

Great job, Dr. Cleveland.  I think you've laid it all out nicely.

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