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.

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.

We Americans take these institutions for granted. We assume that private enterprise generates what is so casually called “innovation” all by itself. It does not. The Web browser you are using to read this essay was invented at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The code that makes this page possible was invented at a publicly funded academic research center in Switzerland. That search engine you use many times a day, Google, was made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation to support Stanford University. You didn’t get polio in your youth because of research done in the early 1950s at Western Reserve University School of Medicine.* California wine is better because of the University of California at Davis. Hollywood movies are better because of UCLA. And your milk was not spoiled this morning because of work done at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

These things did not just happen because someone saw a market opportunity and investors and inventors rushed off to meet it. That’s what happens in business-school textbooks. In the real world, we roll along, healthy and strong, in the richest nation in the world because some very wise people decided decades ago to invest in institutions that serve no obvious short-term purpose. The results of the work we do can take decades to matter—if at all. Most of what we do fails. Some succeeds. The system is terribly inefficient. And it’s supposed to be that way.

Along the way, we share some time and energy with brilliant and ambitious young people from around the world. Many of them have the look that I imagine my father had when he showed up, coatless, at the front door of the chemistry building at IIT in 1956. They show confidence. They also show innocence. They are willing to listen to the wisdom of experience. But they believe in themselves enough to question it at every turn.

Many of these young people visit me and ask if the University of Virginia is right for them. It usually is. But we can take only a sliver of those who want and deserve to enroll. As President Sullivan strives to heal the wounds of the past two weeks and looks forward to fulfilling her goals, she will be trying to manage a significant increase in enrollment. Yet the resources we have to ensure these new students do as well as their predecessors are getting tighter and tighter. We will all work harder and smarter to make it work. But many of us are at the breaking point.

We hear every day from higher-education pundits who can’t seem to express themselves in anything other than jargon and buzzwords that American higher education is “unsustainable.” No. It’s just not adequately sustained. There is a big difference. We could choose to invest in people. We could choose to invest in culture. We could choose to invest in science and technology. We choose instead to imagine that there are quick technological fixes or commercial interventions that can “transform” universities into digital diploma mills. Pundits blame professors for fighting “change.” But they ignore the fact that universities are the chief site of innovation and experimentation in digital teaching and research and that professors might actually know what works and what does not.

Instead of holding up their responsibility, states are divesting themselves of the commitment to help their young people achieve social mobility. States are rigging the system so that only the wealthy can compete for slots in the best universities. States shift the cost of higher education from taxpayers—all of whom benefit from living in a wiser, more creative society—to the students themselves. Yet students keep coming, desperate to enter the privileged classes, unable to imagine a different way through a cruel economy that has no use for the uneducated any more.

Universities are supposed to be special places where we let young people imagine a better world. They are supposed to be able to delay the pressures of the daily grind for a few years. They are supposed to be able to aspire to greatness and inspire each other. A tiny few will aspire to be poets. Many more will aspire to be engineers. Some will become both. Along the way they will bond with friends, meet lovers, experience hangovers, make mistakes, and read some mind-blowing books.

Does that sound wasteful? Does that sound inefficient? Nostalgic? Out-of-sync with the times? Damn right it does. But if we don’t want young people of all backgrounds to experiment with ideas and identities because it seems too expensive to support, we have to ask ourselves what sort of society we are trying to become.

Higher education is not one system. There are multiple layers and a wide variety of institutions. But they all have one thing in common: They have a mission to use knowledge to empower people to imagine a better life and transform society. If we like where we are, let’s just forget about it and roll back public support for higher education. But if we aspire to better things as a society, not just as individuals, then we should rediscover the vision of public higher education that inspired the University of Virginia in the first place.

Unlike Harvard and Yale, UVA is not named for a person. Thomas Jefferson named The University of Virginia for a commonwealth instead of himself because it belongs to and serves the greater good of a commonwealth.

Correction, July 3, 2012: This article originally stated that vital polio research was conducted at Case Western Reserve University in the 1950s. The research was conducted at the Western Reserve University School of Medicine. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia and the author of The Googlization of Everything and Why We Should Worry.