By Peter Galuszka
The news from Charlottesville just gets worse.
Freshly-fired President Teresa Sullivan, it turns out, had been getting pressure from the Board of Visitors to eliminate parts of the university that were “underperforming,” possibly the Classics Department.
Meanwhile, the university administration is asking Dominion (that’s right, the power company) to parachute in two top lobbyists and public relations experts to sort out the furor. It turns out that Helen Dragas and Mark J. Kington, business executive rector and sub rector who did the job on Sullivan, are also on the board of Dominion whose CEO, Thomas Ferrell, is a former U.Va. rector and buddy of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and has served on McDonnell’s higher education committee.
According to this morning’s Times-Dispatch, Sullivan met with chairs of academic departments in April and told them the board was anxious to reallocate resources. This included getting rid of parts of the university that were “underperforming,” according to David Leblang, politics department chair. “Her (Sullivan’s) point of view was that you don’t get rid of a department like classics, for example, just because it doesn’t produce enough graduates.”
If true, the Board of Visitors should be the ones fired. Talk about efficiency modeling running amok. What self-respecting university wants to eliminate Plato and Aristotle because they don’t contribute to some kind of STEM corporate broadsheet? What is this exactly, “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother?”
The Dominion executives expected to try to save the University are Eva Teig Hardy and Carl Babb. I have known and respected Eva since the 1970s when I was a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot and she was a top aide to the Portsmouth’s mayor. Eva, who is retired from Dominion, is not exactly the person for this job, however. Her expertise at Dominion was government relations, namely convincing the General Assembly and other state legislatures to pass laws benefitting her employer. Babb is a corporate spokesman who tells you when your lights will come back on after a hurricane.
Neither individual is an academic. They might be great at damage control, but we’re not talking about a nuclear power plant accident and keeping Dominion’s p/e ratio healthy. This issue is far deeper than that – the very heart of higher education.
It says a lot about Virginia these days that so many people buy into the corporate efficiency model as the be-all solution for complex problems. Take health care. Managed health care has brought us high deductible policies that put cash-strapped individuals on the edge. Corporations, who have by design paid the bulk of health care costs, are dramatically scaling back on coverage, leaving many with no coverage at all. All the chattering class comes up with are “medical boutiques” where a tiny percentage of the rich can supplement their insurance with their very-own, on-call doctors. The remaining 99 percent be damned!
Why is it that the “corporate” model is deemed to be so utterly successful? How many businesses need to be bailed out in the 2008 crash? Whatever happened to Countrywide, Wachovia, Washington Mutual, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns? I am sure they all were manicured for efficiency and had their share of Evas and Carls to improve the public perception.
The problem is that the University of Virginia is not and should not be General Electric. It serves a very different purpose and cannot be expected to be a profit center. As part of this process, they want to get rid of teaching the very foundations of Western Civilization.
This play is sadder than a Greek tragedy.