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.

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  1. Once a program is created, it must be funded forever. A major plank in the liberal’s creed.

    Colleges and universities need to review their program offerings from time-to-time. What are the benefits? Who benefits? What are the cost, including opportunity cost? Who pays the costs? What are the alternatives?

    I don’t disagree with Peter as to the importance of understanding the roots of Western (and Eastern) Civilization. But that doesn’t mean never examining the value of particular programs.

  2. larryg Avatar

    It costs money to operate a University. This comes out of the pockets of taxpayers and students and their parents and is often manifested in 10, 20 years of debt.

    One way of looking at the debt that graduates owe is what that debt paid for and why the student is responsible for it.

    I would not favor getting rid of the classics dept but I would agree with the idea of at least understanding how much it was costing – other students as those costs are ultimately incorporated into the tuition and fees paid by all students.

    Perhaps we are moving to the day where the credit hour cost is keyed directly to what it costs to deliver that subject credit.

    If Classics is an expensive department, should the folks who take classics pay for it or should the guy taking engineering courses pay not only for his engineering education but an additional amount to subsidize the classics dept?

    Am I all wet, Peter?

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I think that universities must offer a core that includes classics, art, history, literature, foreign language, science, social science and math. These have been the backbone of a liberal arts education for centuries,.. They are there for a purpose. Sure, look at what they cost, but do not eliminate them because we want to ape some broken corporate model.
    If you want to go to a trade school that offers only what pays later, then go to a trade school.
    I protest others on this blog, especially Jim Bacon, who are perpetuating a War on Education that wants to dismantle traditional universities, cut out humanities (but while pushing private secondary and primary schools that offer them) and advocate Michael Mann style witch hunts to root out researchers who don’t toe the correct political philosophy. Kinda reminds my of Stalin and Lysenko. My personal goal is to block the Bacons of this world as they try to destroy what they don’t like.
    I agree that college costs are way out of whack, but where does that come from? Certainly not from teaching Plato.

  4. Neil Haner Avatar
    Neil Haner

    Peter – I’ll start by saying the comparisons to Bolshevik era witch hunts are a little heavy handed. I agree there are some folks trying to turn an apple into an orange by “incorporating” an educational institution. But, at the same time, woe to any individual or organization who doesn’t occasionally set time and effort aside to critically evaluate themselves, find their weak areas, and work to either improve or eliminate them.

    Not every university needs to offer every program. UVA has eliminated degrees before. I speak to my experience in the engineering school there, watching them phase out both the aeronautical and the nuclear engineering programs about a decade or so ago. This was in response to a decline in (a) an industry demand for those degrees, and (b) an interest from students in pursuing the course of study. (Though now I’m told, as nuclear power comes back into fashion, they’re spinning that program back up.)

    I don’t find fault with this. They were expensive programs to run, and if the demand wasn’t there, it’s hard to justify. At the same time, the engineering school created a Bio-Medical engineering program, built a new facility for it, etc. etc. The University has a responsibility to its donors and its students to make sure it’s offering the best slate of courses.

    Do not take this as me suggesting the Classics department, or any department in particular, be eliminated. But can a department be streamlined? Maybe there are more chairs in that department than are needed? Or perhaps a field can no longer be offered as a Major concentration, and instead only as electives supporting other Liberal Arts degrees?

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    It seems that most of the faculty and many of the students are outraged at the heavy-handed way in which the BOV operated. I think the Stalin comparisons are entirely appropriate, even if they do go against the supposed gentility with which Hoos tend to view themselves.

  6. Neil Haner Avatar
    Neil Haner

    Peter – the families of the 10’s of millions of ethnic minorities and political dissenters slaughtered by Stalin’s regime may fail to see the similarities between mass murder and someone getting fired.

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Having spent six years as a Moscow-based news correspondent, I think I am at least somewhat familiar with Stalin’s legacy and I think my comparisons are entirely appropriate, certainly regarding the extremely heavy-handed way the Board of Visitors handled this. You, of course, are welcome to your opinion.

    1. Hey, Neal, Peter *is* the in-house Bacon’s Rebellion expert on all things Soviet. I’m still waiting, though, for the Teresa Sullivan show trial and execution. I’m also waiting for the purge of all her supporters.

  8. FreeDem Avatar

    And so it begins …

    The humanities, especially departments like the Classics, are under a grave threat with the future changes to higher education. Online learning, budget crunches, and increased emphasis on STEM and profitable skills will all work to put the squeeze on traditional liberal arts programs. UVA is just one example.

    Instead of Classics Departments in Academia, we’re going to see more and more people get their classics/history from popular culture. Books, podcasts, blogs, etc. Technology is doing to these ivory towers the same thing it’s already done to established newspapers.

  9. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    One more thing Neil.

    The BOV apparently met illegally to accept Sullivan’s resignation:

    I know you have said that you are “good” with the board, but illegal meetings sound so, dare I say it? Stalinesque.

  10. larryg Avatar

    re: “and so it begins”. I don’t think Classics and similar are “under attack”.

    I think there is a valid question as to how much that department should cost and the answer cannot be ” as much as it takes”.

    If Engineering departments can be disbanded… entirely then surely other departments can be held accountable for costs.

    re: strategic vision

    the insular process for addressing this is what is wrong. This should be a pretty public conversation to include all of those who pay for UVA and all those in Virginia who rely on it as a premier provider of high quality education.

    The BoV nor the President should be responsible for implementing “their” vision. Both should be responsible for implementing the vision that all Virginians and attendees of UVA have.

    The job of the BOV is to initiate and maintain the discussion not to substitute their vision for the institutions’ vision.

    What the BOV did was “inform” others what THEIR vision is – or at least who they found incompatible with their vision.

    That’s not their role. If that is their’s arrogant and presumption in the extreme.

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