What Happens When Public Universities Like UVA Are Run by Robber Barons

The conventional wisdom debunked.
June 15 2012 7:30 PM

Strategic Mumblespeak

Er, UVA’s Teresa Sullivan was fired for what?

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Fortunately, Kiernan’s email, leaked to newspapers on the following Tuesday, contained some clues. “The decision of the Board Of Visitors to move in another direction stems from their concern that the governance of the University was not sufficiently tuned to the dramatic changes we all face: funding, Internet, technology advances, the new economic model. These are matters for strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning.” Wait. What? “Strategic dynamism?” That struck many around the university as “strategic neologism.” Kiernan used the phrase two more times in his short email to supporters.

Laughter ensued. It’s the catch-phrase of the year at the University of Virginia.

I have spent the past five years immersed in corporate new-age management talk. For my recent book, The Googlization of Everything—and Why We Should Worry, I immersed myself in the rhetoric of Silicon Valley and the finance culture that supports it. I subjected myself to reading such buzzword-dependent publications as Fast Company. So I had heard about “strategic dynamism” before. I can’t say that I understand it fully. But if my university is going to be governed by a mysterious buzzphrase, I had better try.

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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. In management it means using dynamic graphs to track goals and outcomes over time, and having the ways and the will to shift resources to satisfy general goals via many consecutive short-term targets. Most management textbooks offer equations one may use to dynamically chart and execute strategy. And for all I know it makes a lot of sense.

Consider sailing, which one might do if one is a hedge fund billionaire from Connecticut. In sailing one sets a general course to a distant target but tacks and shifts depending on the particular environmental changes. I understand why “dynamic” is better than “static.” Who wants a static sailboat? But is a university, teeming with research, young people, ideas, arguments, poems, preachers, and way too much Adderall ever in danger of being static?

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.

Still, this cultish diction seems to have swayed at least a few people on the Board of Visitors. It helped convinced them that Sullivan was either not strategic enough or dynamic enough or both. Almost a week after the event and in the face of harsh and universal condemnation, the board itself remains silent about its specific disagreements with Sullivan. The Kiernan letter is the only text that guides us.

We on the faculty, joined by thousands of students and alumni, have been asking the board for two simple things. Would it please tell us the specific issues on which it disagreed with Sullivan? And would it please tell us what sort of person it thinks should be president of the university … and for how long?

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. Adjusted for inflation, state support for each full-time public-college student declined by 26.1 percent from 1990 to 2010. Meanwhile, faculty and staff salaries have been plummeting and security evaporating. This is especially true at the University of Virginia, where state support per student is far lower than at comparable state universities such as North Carolina.