Why Our Universities Are Supposed To Be Terribly Inefficient

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 27 2012 2:12 PM

A Much Higher Education

UVA has its president back. But the fight to save our universities has only just begun.

Teresa A. Sullivan President of the University of Virginia.
Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia.

Photo by Jane Haley/University of Virginia.

Last Saturday, I followed my father as he guided my sisters and me around the hyper-Modernist campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology on the south side of Chicago. Fifty years ago, he completed a Ph.D. in chemistry and began his pursuit of a dream of being a professor at an American university. We had gathered there to honor and thank him. One of my sisters, a librarian at the University of Chicago, presented him with a bound copy of his dissertation.

My father was a young man in his mid-20s when he arrived on a train from New York, after boarding a ship from London, after flying from Bombay, after a train from Madras, India. He had come to Chicago when he was one of only about 300 Indians in the whole city, almost all of them young men struggling to be engineers or scientists.

My father arrived unprepared for Chicago winters, or any winters, for that matter. He was a vegetarian. He was a Hindu. He had dark skin in a country where that fact excluded him from entry to some places and contact with some people. And he was lonely and homesick. Undeterred and drunk on the optimism that only Eisenhower’s America could provide, he put his faith in the American system of higher education to transform his life and give him the chance to use his mind to contribute to the boom in scientific knowledge that this country once sponsored and celebrated. He retired a few years ago after 40 years on the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo. He raised and educated three children. And he instilled in them a cosmopolitan sensibility and a deep respect for science and knowledge. He taught brilliant students and did some excellent science along the way.

Advertisement

My father embodies the potential of the American higher-education system. It’s something people around the world envy. It’s something governments around the world wish to emulate.

I thought of the risks and sacrifices my father made back then yesterday as I stood on the grounds of another great American institution of higher education, the University of Virginia, to welcome back its president, Teresa Sullivan.

Helen Dragas, the rector of the Board of Visitors, which runs the university, had requested Sullivan’s resignation two weeks ago in a botched attempt to circumvent usual board procedures. Sullivan resigned quickly, quietly, and with dignity. Sullivan stayed out of the way as news leaked out that the ouster was ideologically driven, executed by a tiny cabal of extremely wealthy alumni, and against the wishes of almost every student, alumnus, and faculty member of the university.

Apparently, Dragas wanted a president who would act more like a corporate CEO, someone who would push the university toward radical change, ignore pleasantries like orchestrating consensus among faculty and students, and roll out online gimmicks with reckless abandon.

Dragas demanded top-down control and a rapid transition to a consumer model of diploma generation and online content distribution. She wished to pare down the subjects of inquiry to those that demonstrate clear undergraduate demand and yield marketable skills. Such a purely transactional institution would have no appeal to a young immigrant scientist who needed time and space to explore a variety of big research questions. Sullivan, a proud consensus-builder and incrementalist, resisted such mindless calls for radical dismantling. So she was forced out.

After two weeks of massive protests, online activism, and a media blitz orchestrated by faculty and students who seemed far more deft at media relations than the wealthy Dragas and her hired public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, the entire board relented and voted unanimously to invite Sullivan back to her job.

Sullivan took the microphone after a 30-minute board meeting at which everyone said nice things about each other and the university. “We have problems at UVA—all of higher education does,” Sullivan said. “We are not in crisis, but change appropriate to our mission is necessary. … I am heartened by the fact that the events of the past week have created in us a spirit of unity that can help us make the needed improvements more quickly. The great strength we have discovered is how deep our commitment to this university runs, and how unified we can be when we pursue its best interests.”

I stood there on Thomas Jefferson’s lawn as everyone in the crowd exhaled with relief. Pleased, tired, and impressed by my students’ devotion to this place, I hugged my colleagues and high-fived students. But I am not comforted. This fight is not over.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

The Supreme Court, Throughout Its History, Has Been a Massive Disappointment

Why Indians in America Are Mad for India’s New Prime Minister

Damned Spot

Now Stare. Don’t Stop.

The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 12:04 PM John Hodgman on Why He Wore a Blue Dress to Impersonate Ayn Rand
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 30 2014 2:36 PM This Court Erred The Supreme Court has almost always sided with the wealthy, the privileged, and the powerful.
  Business
Building a Better Workplace
Sept. 30 2014 1:16 PM You Deserve a Pre-cation The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.
  Life
Education
Sept. 30 2014 1:48 PM Thrashed Florida State’s new president is underqualified and mistrusted. But here’s how he can turn it around.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 2:56 PM How Faithful Is David Fincher’s Gone Girl?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 2:38 PM Scientists Use Electrical Impulses to Help Paralyzed Rats Walk Again
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.