By Peter Galuszka
Calm seems to have returned to the Lawn at the University of Virginia where one of the most crucial battles in current higher education was fought in June. Now that the dust has settled, The University of Virginia Magazine, a publication of the alumni association, has come out with a remarkable Fall issue combing through just about every aspect imaginable over the firing and then reinstatement of President Teresa Sullivan.
As followers of this blog know, Bacon’s Rebellion has aired many of the critical issues of the controversy, such as boardroom power plays, the influence of hedge funds on school policies, and, perhaps most important, whether the University is under an “existential threat” because it is supposedly behind the trendy fad towards online education and other measures to make it more commercial.
As one prominent blogger put it, Rector Helen Dragas, head of a Virginia Beach construction company, “gets it” because she recognizes that public schools like U.Va. must “get with” the online craze. What’s more, she supposedly understands that the traditional university will be supplanted by free market, for profit, firms that make course-load available on-line.
Out of an excellent series of “Personal Perspectives” that the school magazine printed, my favorite was by Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies and law. His University of Virginia Magazine article had been first written for slate.com and here, chopped down a bit are some of his contributions to the online debate:
“We Americans take universities for granted. We assume that private enterprise generates what is so casually called ‘innovation’ all by itself. It does not.”
“The Web browser you use to access the Internet was invented at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The code that makes those Web pages 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 your polio in your youth because of research done 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.”
Unlike what you often read on this blog: “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.”
Today’s critics, he says, “can’t seem to express themselves in anything other than jargon and buzzwords that American higher education is ‘unsustainable.’”
Another zinger: “We could choose to invest in people. 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.”
James A. Bacon Jr., meet the “Real World.”