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 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.”

He continues:

“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.”

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  1. DJRippert Avatar


    You are half way there. The innovations you describe were absolutely invented at universities funded by the government and with government grants. Of course, the only reason that the government has the money to fund these things is because of taxes paid by job holders in the private sector. And that’s the way it should work – public funding creating opportunities for private enterprise and private enterprise generating wealth that can, in turn, support public funding.

    Now, let’s talk Virginia. All of the innovations that were described in the article you cite are based on STEM research. Yet, Virginia lags in STEM research. Also, the University of California at Davis is proximate to wine country. UCLA is proximate to Hollywood. Stanford is in Silicon Valley. Virginia’s three top universities are not near Virginia’s three economic engines.

    Why are none of the innovations cited by the UVA professor from Virginia’s universities?

    The real question isn’t whether universities are useful. The real question is whether Virginia gets the most from its university system. And the clear answer to that question is “no”.


    Peter, you are the one who needs to meet the real world! By the real world, I mean you need to address arguments that I actually make, rather than straw men existing only in your mind that you set up and destroy.

    For instance, I never said that Helen Dragas “supposedly understands that the traditional university will be supplanted by free market, for profit, firms that make course-load available on-line.”

    I did predict that the for-profit sector would drive online learning faster than traditional universities. But I never suggested that Dragas said so. I said only that Dragas saw the need for UVa to move more aggressively with online learning — a very different thing.

    As for universities funding basic research, I have always said there is a legitimate role for government-sponsored basic research in universities — as opposed to government funding of enterprises…. like Solyndra.

    By quoting Vaidhyanathan, you take a swipe at the notion that American higher education is “unsustainable.” That’s jargon? That’s a buzzword? How about this: It’s a fundamental fiscal reality. Judging by your presentation of what he says (which may or may not be any fairer than your presentation of what I say) Vaidhyanathan sounds like he would be all too happy for the rest of society, which is going broke, to continue to pour more and more money into higher ed while the higher-ed sector continues business as usual.

    We should “invest” in people? Having government pump money into the higher education system without any regard to the returns on money expended is not investing. That’s throwing money indiscriminately at a problem.

    Higher ed is broken. Once upon a time, back in 1968 when you went to Woodstock and opposed the Vietnam War, you were a progressive. Today, you are defending an indefensible status quo. Today, you are the reactionary.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Reality check time, Jim,
    You started your first blog posting on the UVA affair by stating Helen Dragas “gets it.”

    You have constantly pushed online education while bashing what you insist is an inbred liberal academic system in universities. You tout unsubstantiated claims that hard-right schools like Liberty University have 80,000 students thanks to online. Can you spell “digital diploma mill?”

    I doubt opposing Vietnam lumps me in the liberal “progressive” mode. My father was a combat vet of World II ( with the Marine Corps at Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima), was a moderate conservative and he couldn’t se the point of the Vietnam War either. Luckily he retired from the Navy in 1962 since he might have ended up there – some of his contemporaries did.

    Also, fact check time, Woodstock was in 1969 not 1968. What’s more, I was in high school then, not college.

    Jim you are trotting out tired arguments that are quite simplistic instead of looking at the points the magazine article raises.

    By the way, you are listed on the magazine’s masthead as being pat of the editorial board. Do they ever consult you? Or is it ceremonial?

  4. What Dragas “gets” is that UVa is facing an an inability to increase revenue through government funds and through tuition hikes. At no time has the BOV suggested that online education is desirable, necessary, or a solution–this is only what the media said that the BOV said. The BOV simply stated that online learning was yet another pressure on the horizon that needed to be addressed. If you also read the Q & A piece in the magazine you will note that the Rector reiterated this.

  5. I never saw the “online craze” as an either-or, mutually-exclusive proposition for Universities and academic investigation and innovation.

    In fact, I found it ironic that all these innovations cited by Peter as born in academic endeavor – the product of which – is not viewed as a kind of a threat by the Universities to their brick & mortar mission.

    Online is a complement to their bricks & mortar that needs to become a part of their mission….

    to limit a kid or a scientist to learn or contribute only through a physical presence in this modern world is dumb. UVA needs to embrace the future that it and other academia have helped to spawn.

  6. DJRippert Avatar

    I am always amazed at the dichotomy of thought between conservatives and liberals.

    1. Liberals decry the escalating costs of healthcare claiming that health care is a right that is unaffordable to many. Somehow, liberals can’t see the same point with education.

    2. Conservatives roundly blast the American legal systems as inefficient, ineffective and corrupt. Then, they want that same system to put men and women to death in their name.

    3. Liberals hate off-shore outsourcing because it takes jobs away from Americans. However, they just can’t fathom how the same is true for illegal immigration.

    4. Conservatives despise big government but are all too happy to fund an immense and entirely unsuccessful big government program called the war on drugs.

    This is another classic example ….

    1. If colleges and universities were run by private enterprise, Peter would be the first in line to demand that the spiraling costs be brought down by any means necessary. Replacing professors (i.e. corporate bureaucrats in the private enterprise scenario) with technology would be peachy-keen.

    2. If healthcare were run by the government, Jim Bacon would be at the front of the line demanding that the entire system be gutted and started anew.

    And, as for Professor Vaidhyanathan, I can only guess that he has no college age children or he gets to send his kids to college for free. As for me, I don’t take universities for granted. I spend a considerable fortune on the institutions of higher learning that my children attended, are attending and will attend.

  7. DJRippert Avatar

    “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.”.

    Say, Perfesser HuffAndPuff – the short term purpose is to educate the students who attend your university.

  8. I think DJ’s stereotypical view of liberals and conservatives is often off the mark especially when he fancies himself a “conservative’” who spends much time decrying the failure of Richmond to do things with infrastructure and education.

    I’d rather see DJ differentiate between fiscal conservatism and govt spending.

    The so-called Conservatives that inhabit much of the political landscape are, in fact, big spending, big govt types who just differ with “liberals” on what things big govt and big govt spending should focus on.

    So my question is a pretty simple one. Is Higher Ed the legitimate province of the private sector or government?

    Would we be better off if there were no public institutions of higher learning?

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Tisk, tisk LarryG , you know I:

      1. support gay marriage.
      2. oppose the death penalty.
      3. believe in the second amendment.
      4. hate wealth redistribution
      5. think government (especially our state government) is incompetent
      6. want to see pot legalized
      7. am happy to pay more taxes to build for the future

      Yet, you want to characterize me as Conservative or whatever. No matter what Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi tell you – the world really doesn’t break down into good liberals wearing white cowboy hats vs bad conservatives wearing black cowboy hats.

  9. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    On the public- private education situation, what gnaws at me is the attitude that if a school is good, then it must be private or made private.
    I say this as one who went to both a private high school and college.
    Both types of schools came up from different routes. U.Va., from what I know, was envisioned as a PUBLIC school by TJ himself. His ideals of education and society and politics, so praised since every think tank in the state seems to be named after him, made him want to make sure that the state and the public contributed to and benefited from a public college (except, unfortunately, in the case of African-Americans but that’s a different story).
    In the rest of the country, public schools were seen to serve the goals of higher ed while supplying trained professionals. One of the most successful of these, in my experience, was the Midwest where I lived for a few years. As the U.S. expanded the concept of land grant colleges came into play and you now have great schools STEM wise or otherwise in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, etc.
    Some of the private schools such as the Ivies were seen as places to conduct some of the best-funded research imaginable while also sucking up to the privileged classes. The elitism kept out Jews, Catholics and others until they came up with merit-based SATs.
    What gets me about the privatize Virginia’s top public schools crowd is that they somehow think that because these schools are achieving close to top rank, they must now be made private. What for? To solidify the idea that they are turning out future members of an elitist ruling class, which once was and has been abandoned as the raison d’etre for the former elite private schools?
    We’ve heard about “credentialing” as an unfortunate goal either public or private school. There’s a lot of cause for worry. But I just don’t get why Virginia’s top public schools should be made private after they are successful? Doesn’t Virginia have enough good private schools such as Washington & Lee or the University of Richmond?
    The privatizers have not made any case.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      The only reason I would privatize Virginia’s top schools is to take the money from the privatization and use it to build top tier public schools in the state’s big MSAs.

      Virginia doesn’t manage its public universities as a system. They are allowed to pretty much do as they please in any way they like – kind of like a collection of private universities. Contrast that to California or Illinois. In those states there is a plan for higher education that entails some coordination among the various public universities.

      If Virginia is going to manage the public universities like they are private – why not let them be private. Lord knows, nobody at UVA seems to give a rat’s ass about the economic well being of the state.

      Finally, I must call you on two points …

      1. While the exclusion of African – Americans at UVA was deplorable, the exclusion of women was notorious as well. UVA first let women into the non-nursing curriculum in 1970. Yes, 1970! Another very late wake up call from our Richmond-based legislature.

      2. If Catholics weren’t allowed into Ivy League schools, where did JFK go to college? I don’t think it was the merit-based SATs that got Jack Kennedy into Harvard in 1936.

  10. re: Conservatives and Liberals

    well DJ, I’m not the one who repeatedly hurls pejoratives at “libtards” on a regular basis nor do I support hard right political folks who lack principles and lie even as they are being asked about their lying…. chutzpah from weasels…

    but I digress…

    My point is that you are all over the map on left and right, but I most often hear you complaining about liberals and correct me if I’m wrong, but seldom have heard your complaints with regard to conservatives, in fact, you seem pleased to associate with them.

    “Normally”, when one uses the “libtard” invective, it’s a self-announcement of your political philosophy.

    You’ll NEVER hear folks who consider themselves NOT to be right-wing knuckle draggers label themselves as “libtards” as that pejorative is almost always used by those on the right to describe people to their left and once you cross the middle line of left/right political – philosophy, headed left, you’ll never hear that word.

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