Why Our Universities Are Supposed To Be Terribly Inefficient

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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.

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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.

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