Finally, hints of clarity out of Charlottesville. Digging into the departure of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, Karin Kapsidelis with the Times-Dispatch has uncovered at least one concrete instance of the “difference in philosophy” that drove the Board of Visitors to seek Sullivan’s resignation. Money quote from David Leblang, chair of the department of politics:
[Sullivan] made it clear that the board wanted her to lop off, for lack of better word, parts of the institution that were under performing. Her 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. There are parts of a university that need to be part of a university regardless of how many graduates they have.
That’s really a remarkable statement. Think about it: “There are parts of a university that need to be part of a university regardless of how many graduates they have.” Costs and tuition going through the roof… students borrowing themselves into indentured servitude… an online revolution looming that can beam in classics courses from top professors around the country… new disciplines emerging that the university wants to fund… And Ms. Sullivan sees no justification for shrinking or eliminating under-performing departments!
Leblang mentioned UVa’s classics department, so let’s take a look. The program has 11 faculty members and nine “affiliated faculty,” and it draws upon professors from other departments. The department claims 25 graduate students, according to the department’s website, and at any given time “over 50″ undergraduate students are majoring in the classics.
Could the department be run with greater productivity? Of the 11 full-time faculty members, three taught no classes in the Fall of 2011. Perhaps they were on sabbatical, I don’t know. But that strikes me as a pretty high ratio. Of those who did teach classes, three professors taught only one. And all of the rest taught two. Add it all up, and 11 professors were teaching 15 classes. (The course guide did have three Latin language classes “to be assigned,” presumably if there was sufficient enrollment to justify them.) However you count the numbers, that’s a remarkably low level of productivity.
Now, we all know how it’s “publish or perish” in the academic world, so it’s possible that UVa’s Greek and Latin scholars are busy writing academic articles and books. While I personally love reading in classical history — Hannibal and the Punic wars, awesome; 1st century Palestine and the historical Jesus, beyond awesome — I question whether there is the same social value created by research into the classics as there is, say, in nano-technology, cancer treatment and other fields that UVa would like to pursue.
It would not strike me as unreasonable, for instance, to ask UVa professors to shoulder a larger teaching load. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that it would be no calamity to do what many other universities do, and go without a classics department entirely. UVa would not, as my alarmist lefty counterpart Peter Galuszka suggests, have to “eliminate Plato and Aristotle because they don’t contribute to some kind of STEM corporate broadsheet.” But it might have to eliminate courses like “Latin Elegiac Poetry of Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid.” Faculty members teaching essential subjects could be reassigned to the history, religion or philosophy departments. Others could enter early retirement or, like stiffs in the private sector, seek employment elsewhere.
Such restructuring would not be a heartless “corporate” exercise. The university’s current Six-Year Plan states the need to “audit programs for productivity and viability in line with [State Council for Higher Education in Virginia] and U.Va. standards.” For the most part, that part of the plan seems to have gone ignored. Let’s see the results of those audits. Do they even exist? If so, perhaps they should be published.
The alternative to restructuring is to live in a fairy tale world where resources are unlimited. Peter G. appears to find it offensive that a $2.5 billion institution like UVa would be forced to make hard choices. (See the previous post.) He deems it a monstrosity that in order to dedicate more funds to, say, nanotechnology faculty, the university might have to reduce its commitment to a different discipline. People who think like Peter G. have been running the country for too long, and that’s why it’s going broke.
That said, it is incumbent upon the Board of Visitors to make its priorities crystal clear. The board cannot negotiate the resignation of a popular president for reasons that go unexplained. What are the board’s priorities? What would the board like to see in the university’s strategic plan? Do we really have to wait until the board selects the next president for its vision of UVa’s future to be revealed? At this critical juncture, wouldn’t it be appropriate for the board to define its philosophy and accept feedback from the taxpayers, students, faculty and other stakeholders? The BoV appears to be doing the right thing but going about it in the wrong way.
Update from today’s Washington Post reporting: Rector Helen E. Dragas illuminated her differences with Sullivan:
We have calls internally for resolution of tough financial issues that require hard decisions on resource allocation,” [Dragas] said. She alluded to stagnant faculty pay and looming retirements and portrayed them as “truly an existential threat to the greatness of UVA.
This sheds a very different light on the BoV’s concerns. Stagnant pay and looming retirements constitute the existential threat, not emerging models of delivering education.