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?

Teresa Sullivan.
Teresa Sullivan was ousted as president of the University of Virginia last weekend in a surprise to the school community

Lin Jones/University of Michigan.

In the 19th century, robber barons started their own private universities when they were not satisfied with those already available. But Leland Stanford never assumed his university should be run like his railroad empire. Andrew Carnegie did not design his institute in Pittsburgh to resemble his steel company. The University of Chicago, John D. Rockefeller’s dream come true, assumed neither his stern Baptist values nor his monopolistic strategies. That’s because for all their faults, Stanford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller knew what they didn’t know.

In the 21st century, robber barons try to usurp control of established public universities to impose their will via comical management jargon and massive application of ego and hubris. At least that’s what’s been happening at one of the oldest public universities in the United States—Thomas Jefferson’s dream come true, the University of Virginia.

On Thursday night, a hedge fund billionaire, self-styled intellectual, “radical moderate,” philanthropist, former Goldman Sachs partner, and general bon vivant named Peter Kiernan resigned abruptly from the foundation board of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. He had embarrassed himself by writing an email claiming to have engineered the dismissal of the university president, Teresa Sullivan, ousted by a surprise vote a few days earlier.

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The events at UVA raise important questions about the future of higher education, the soul of the academic project, and the way we fund important public services.

Kiernan, who earned his MBA at Darden and sent his children to the university, has been a longtime and generous supporter of both the business school and the College of Arts and Sciences, where I work as a professor. Earlier this year he published a book called—I am not making this up—Becoming China’s Bitch. It purports to guide America through its thorniest problems, from incarceration to education to foreign policy. The spectacle of a rich man telling us how to fix our country was irresistible to the New York Times, which ran a glowing profile of Kiernan and his book on Feb. 29.

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. Expertise is so 20th century.

Kiernan played a strange and as-yet-unclear role in the ousting of Sullivan over last weekend. Here is the story of how it unfolded and how we came to know of Kiernan’s role in the matter.

Sunday morning my phones started ringing and my email box started swelling. The rector (what we in Virginia call the chairperson) of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors (what most states call a Board of Regents) had written an email to the entire university community announcing that Sullivan had resigned.

I can’t begin to describe the level of shock this generated among alumni, students, and faculty. Suffice it to say that everyone—every dean, every professor, every student, and every staff member at the university—was surprised. Even Sullivan did not have a clue that this was coming down until the Friday before the Sunday announcement. I can describe two things: the affection and respect that the university community had for president Sullivan in her two short years in office; and the bizarre turn of events that led to her forced resignation.

Sullivan is an esteemed sociologist who specialized in class dynamics and the role of debt in society. The author or co-author of six books, she spent most of her career rising through the ranks at the University of Texas, where she served as dean of the graduate school while I was working toward my Ph.D. in the late 1990s. She was known around Texas as a straightforward, competent, and gregarious leader. She carried that reputation from Texas to the University of Michigan, the premier public research university in the world, where she served as the chief academic officer, or provost, for four years.