“Running Lean” at the University of Virginia

Siva Vaidhyanathan: defender of Virginia's higher ed status quo
Siva Vaidhyanathan: defender of  Virginia’s higher ed status quo

Once upon a time, the credo of American journalism was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Today, the attitude of many reporters is quite the reverse: Defend the institutional status quo against Tea Partiers, Trumpkins, rabble-rousers and other yahoos. The bias is especially evident in coverage of that most elite and privileged of establishment institutions, higher ed.

Sandy Hausman, a reporter for public radio station WVTF in Roanoke, broadcast a story recently about the effort by Helen Dragas, a former rector of the University of Virginia and board chair of Partners 4 Affordable Excellence, to make Virginia universities more accountable for skyrocketing tuition. (Full disclosure: Her organization sponsors this blog.)

Staking out a populist position on higher education, Dragas is speaking for millions of Virginia students and parents, present and future, who are paying, or will pay, unprecedented sums for a college education. As Partners 4 Excellence has noted, parents are spending 74% more to send their kids to college than they did 10 years ago. And there is no sign that the increases are slowing down.

But rather than explore the causes driving the runaway Cost of Attendance at Virginia colleges and universities, Hausman used the piece to debunk Dragas. She devoted much of the story to the remarks of Siva Vaidhyanathan, a University of Virginia media studies professor — hardly an unbiased source.

You can listen to Vaidhyanathan yourself. Suffice it to say that his observations, though not entirely without merit, were debatable. Parsing each sentence would be an exercise too tedious to engage in here. But one comment galled me.  “The university systems throughout the state of Virginia are running lean,” he said. “They’re serving students very well.”

That’s priceless coming from a professor in UVa’s media studies department. That department lists 15 professors and nine lecturers on staff. Between them, the 24 faculty members are teaching a total of 39 courses this semester. What’s particularly interesting is how the course load is distributed between professors and lecturers. The less prestigious (and presumably less well compensated) lecturers are teaching 19 courses, or an average of 2.1 courses each. The professors are teaching 20, an average of 1.3 classes each.

Ironically, Vaidhyanathan is not listed as teaching a single course this semester. Perhaps he is on sabbatical, I don’t know. He is also listed as the “Robertson Professor of Modern Media Studies,” which suggests that he sits in an endowed chair that supplements his state salary. His total gross pay, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch state salary database, was $253,000 in 2014. In other words, Vaidhyanathan is paid a salary worthy of the “1%,” not for carrying a heavy teaching load and “serving the students well” but for getting published.

He has written four books. His most recent, published in 2011, was “The Googlization of Everything And Why We Should Worry.” Judging by its Amazon.com blurb, the book actually looks pretty timely and relevant. For purposes of argument, let us grant the proposition that Vaidhyanathan is a brilliant intellect who brings credit to UVa. His employment and that of his media colleagues still is not what anyone could call “running lean.”

In examining the affordability higher ed institutions such as the University of Virginia, one of the many questions we must ask ourselves is this: Is faculty productivity improving or declining? As UVa seeks to recruit more star faculty who bring renown to the institution, what terms and conditions does it grant these superstars? How much time are they asked to teach? To how many professors is UVa paying top-drawer salaries for teaching two or three small-enrollment courses a year and spending the rest of their time writing articles and books?

It goes without saying that Vaidhyanathan and others like him would prefer to blame skyrocketing tuition on cutbacks in state aid to higher ed. The General Assembly has cut back and it does deserve a share of the blame. But reductions in state aid account for only half the increase in tuition, and only a fifth of the total cost of attendance when fees, room, board and other expenses are thrown in.

How many administrators does UVa employ, and what are they paid? How many faculty does UVa employ, and how are they compensated? How much does the institution spend on sports programs? How much on marketing to students with the goal of inflating applications and looking exclusive? How much has the competition for out-of-state students with high SAT scores led the university to upgrade dormitories, dining facilities, gymnasiums, and recreational facilities? There’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer to any of these questions, but they are all worth asking. Too bad Virginia journalists aren’t interested.

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13 responses to ““Running Lean” at the University of Virginia”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m not sure that the logic behind if taxpayers help fund something that they get to decide how much it should cost.

    It’s along the lines that if VDOT was not “wasting” money or spending it on bike trails that they’d have more than enough and not have to build toll roads.

    or more recently – if we did not have to pay for rural hospitals or nurses for kids, – then we’d not have to “divert” money from other spending – like subsidies for overpriced higher ed!

    it’s a nice parlor game… but I’m quite sure if you gave UVA an “ultimatum” …”lower your prices or we’ll stop the state aid” – they’d be grinning ear-to-ear to finally get the state and those pesky taxpayers out of their hair.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      If UVA were to be privatized taxpayers should be reimbursed for their investment in the campus — land, buildings, equipment. Any private college or university has had investments made by someone. If one were transferred to let’s say a for-profit entity, wouldn’t the current “owner” expect compensation for the land, buildings and furnishing? Sauce for the goose, as my late father used to pound into my head.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        it would have to be worked out.

        For the record – it wouldn’t take much to convince me that UVA and other state institutions are “heavy” on the number of employees at least for some areas – like Jim has highlighted.

        And to a certain extent – one might surmise that some courses that are not heavy on enrollment but the institution likes to offer it – might well be essentially subsidized by other, more lucrative , more lean staffed courses.

        but that goes back to my point that people on the outside are not going to be able to force changes of that nature even if there is sufficient transparency to actually expose the data like Jim did.

        That’s the purview of any institution to configure itself with regard to the width and breadth of programs offered and … the way that they can become a top rated provider of selected areas they’ve chosen to build themselves up in.

        The question is who decides what courses they’ll offer and what areas they’ll emphasize to become leaders of that area among other schools?

        For example, Va Tech with their Smart Road and transportation. Who decided to invest in that area – the State, the General Assembly? Probably not.. it was one or more administrators at Tech who saw it as an opportunity and convince others to focus on it. How much the BOV had to do with it or not might be interesting but also probably true is that ultimately the institution itself decides what areas it will emphasize and invest it and what areas it will just maintain – and what areas it will let die on the vine.

        If we are honest – we’d admit the average taxpayer and student/parent don’t give a Rat’s behind as to what the “strategic plan” is … or not… just what IS – RIGHT NOW… how it got there – they don’t care.

        And for the ones that might care – the BOV perhaps – would we expect the BOV to be the one to determine the future path of the institution or instead be informed of what the institution has decided where they want to go and get BOV support and concurrence?

        1. UVa and only UVa should decide what courses UVa offers.

          However, it’s entirely possible that UVa, like any other organization, does not question basic practices because there is no compelling financial need for them to do so. As long as the university can increase tuition and fees more or less at will, it will never make the painful adjustments needed to drive costs lower.

          I received a very civil response from Mr. Vaidhyanathan yesterday, and we will chat Monday. Hopefully, I’ll have material for a follow-up that explores some of these questions at greater depth.

          1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
            Reed Fawell 3rd

            The current trends in elite educational institutions (such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and those wantabe’s such as UVA who now strive so hard to imitate those elite Ivies) are today’s Status Quo institutions who always have over time (unless forcibly corrected by outside circumstances) grown themselves into complete irrelevance to the society within which they invariably labor so hard for their own privilege and corruption.

            And, along the way, these corrupt institutions labor to destroy the very foundation on which they were built and that historically gave them relevance and value to the society that created them. Here, in these latter stages of their collapse, the prime drivers within these corrupt institutions are self – loathing that overtime overwhelms those within the group who stand against their corrupt cohorts.

            On this website, in past posts, I have repeatedly raised two examples that highlight these historical cycles that operate in perpetuity, cycles driven by the fallen nature of men and women operating in groups, most particularly groups within large institutions. The 19th century State Sponsored French Academy that painted and taught itself into a cultural dead end after doing tremendous harm to itself, its mission, and society generally, until the fine arts where saved by barbarian outsiders who ripped apart the status quo, within a matter of decades – folks like Manet, Monet, Van Gogh Matisse, Picasso. Or the Scholasticism that grew out of the philosophy, theology and teachings of the Middle Ages as later inflected through ancient teachers such as Aristotle, all of if corrupting itself and all society around it, before be ripped apart and tossed aside for later renewal, by barbarian outsiders such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton.

            Today’s bloat, incompetence, self-aggrandizement, extreme practices of naval gazing, self-importance, narrow mindedness, intolerance, and abuse of all outside the corrupt cabal are quite easy to expose to if one focuses sharply and relentlessly on a few key questions. You, Jim, touch on them when you ask simply.

            “How many administrators does UVa employ, and what are they paid? How many faculty does UVa employ, and how are they compensated?”

            And I would add: How many faculty teach? How are they promoted, judged, and rewarded, and for what activities? How is this segmented by group – full tenured Professors, Tenure Track professors, Non Tenured tract Professors, and instructors, what is their full compensation in all its variant forms and costs per hour taught, and course taught, and how is their scholarship impact tuition paying students sitting in the classroom and/or working under their Direct Mentor-ship, and grading system. How does this teaching system work now at UVA? And did it work in past at UVA? How does UVA plan for it to work in the future there at UVA.

            Jim – demand the hard provable facts, and don’t let up till you get them to your satisfaction. And we will all be enlightened and startled.

  2. Hmmm that is quite some stats there on teaching classes. Something that maybe should be asked of the legislators?

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t think we want the GA deciding strategic directions and staffing decisions nor policy on the University level … I can just imagine highly inappropriate and really ignorant actions like getting rid of things they don’t like and advocating things they do …

    Look at them right now… they profess to hate regulation but now they’re proposing “free speech” regulations.. and the State having staff to determine if the Universities would be adhering to the regs.. I can justimagine – for each University – the state bureaucracy would issue annul “Free Speech Reports”.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      No tax dollars should go to any public institution that does not allow for free speech, subject only to constitutionally permitted restrictions. An example is “regulations of the time, place, and manner of expression which are content-neutral, are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample alternative channels of communication.” Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U.S. 474, 481 (1988). For example, the state could likely prohibit a large and noisy demonstration next to a public hospital. Or restrict a demonstration inside a military base.

      See https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/95-815.pdf A summary paper prepared by the Congressional Research Service.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        You have to define what Free Speech is and is not – on a University Campus.

        So let me give you an example -again.

        Do you have the free-speech right to show up at the General Assembly and stand with megaphone and say what you think?

        Would you have that “right” to go to any place on campus at any time and do similar?

        Is there a difference between being invited by someone at the school to appear at a particular venue and speak on ANY subject?

        Let me give you a particularly odious example:

        North American Man/Boy Love Association

        ” The North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) is a pedophile and pederasty advocacy organization in the United States. It works to abolish age-of-consent laws criminalizing adult sexual involvement with minors[2][3] and campaigns for the release of men who have been jailed for sexual contacts with minors that did not involve coercion.”


        Now do YOU think that anyone on a campus has the “right” to invite these guys to speak on the campus ? to go around to the classrooms and speak? to reserve College auditoriums to speak?

        how do you regulate this? Do you have rules promulgated by the University or do you have the state in charge of this?

        what say you TMT – do you want “Men who Love boys” to speak freely at any University as a matter of “Free speech”?

        Bonus Question – if someone comes to speak that a large number of students vehemently disagree with are they allowed to also express their free speech in opposition – as long as they are not violent?

        1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

          Larry, go read the paper by the Congressional Research Service. It should answer most of your questions. For example, the General Assembly can regulate and prohibit interrupting speech from the gallery. It cannot stop a person from standing on the steps of the Capitol Buildings from saying the same thing, unless perhaps it’s through a bullhorn at 3:30 am when people are sleeping.

          I think a person can probably say anything she/he wants on the outdoor parts of a college campus. Use of a bullhorn may be subject to regulation if its shown to be disruptive, say disturbing study at a library or dorm or at an unreasonable time of night. Go back to the Frisby case.

          In terms of content, I think NAMBLA is free to make any argument for a change in the law that it wants and for release of certain sex offenders, no matter how repulsive. I suspect they probably could rent a public facility to hold a rally. I don’t think they can interrupt classes to speak. See Frisby.

          And the same holds true for the opponents. They can say what they please but can be restricted in terms of “regulations of the time, place, and manner of expression which are content-neutral, are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample alternative channels of communication.” You can protest outside the building, but cannot disrupt the speaker inside. If there is a Q& A session, a protester can ask a question, but the speaker can choose not to answer.

          Protesting a speaker by picketing and arguing the opposite position outside the venue is likely OK. But trying to storm a building or physically stop people from attending the event is likely criminal conduct that can be stopped and punished. Similarly, opponents cannot lawfully try to disrupt the speaker from inside the hall or meeting room.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            TMT – my point is that when someone says “free speech” on campus it’s seldom caveated as limited and regulated but instead that it is wrong to limit and regulate it and that , my understanding, the proposed legislation is along those lines – more formally – that would then bring up the question as to who would actually regulate if the idea is the Universities are not doing it “right” – and so I asked – do you want a State Agency with state employees deciding for colleges across Va if the rules are being followed – and if not write reports and levy sanctions, fines, convictions?

  4. I note without comment some of the class names and descriptions in Media Studies:

    Selves, Selfies, and Society

    In November 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary named “selfie” the international word of the year. In the years since, the selfie has been an everyday practice and an object of scorn. This class will use the selfie as way to take a self-portrait of contemporary society. Topics will include: self-presentation and identity play; race, gender, sexuality; politics and protest; facial recognition and dataveillance; celebrity and authenticity.

    Breaking Bad: Once Upon A Time with the Pests

    This course examines the television drama Breaking Bad through interdisciplinary study of the show’s narrative, characters, and formal design. Subjects to be explored include: the dynamics of socio-economic breaks in contemporary America; the philosophical and psychological implications of being bugged; the show as postmodern Western; the semiotics of space and color; the poetry of W.W.

    Intersectionality & the Media

    Rooted in the scholarship of women of color and utilizing critical cultural studies, media studies, feminist and queer studies, and critical race theory, this class explores the various ways in which intersectional identity both is and is not reflected in U.S. media texts. The goal of the course is to help articulate how identity functions for people living in a media society.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    must be the modern version of courses for the folks on the sports teams?


    I bet if we got rid of the sports, we’d get rid of a lot of these “courses”!

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