What Does UVA Need in a University President?

by James A. Bacon

For anyone following governance issues at the University of Virginia, Bill Ackman’s Twitter broadside against Harvard’s now- dethroned president Claudine Gay and its governing board is must reading. Ackman, the hedge-fund manager-turned-activist who spearheaded Gay’s overthrow, identifies serious systemic problems at Harvard, from its ponderous DEI bureaucracy to a tuition policy that prices out the middle class.

Every one of the pathologies he describes at Harvard plays out at UVA (although, one can argue, in diluted form). Little of this is new to readers of The Jefferson Council blog, for we have been documenting the problems for two years. But Ackman raises one point that we have not considered: what qualifications should a governing board look for in a university president?

The question might seem academic, but UVa President Jim Ryan is surely feeling nervous these days. As dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education before ascending to his position at UVA, he is a product of the same hyper-progressive Harvard culture as Gay. And Liz Magill, the University of Pennsylvania president who was sacked after her abysmal testimony before Congress, was Ryan’s hand-picked provost for UVa before she moved on to the Ivy League. Ryan is less politically tone deaf, to be sure. He is popular among UVA students and faculty, and he has said all the right things regarding free speech and institutional neutrality. No one in authority has publicly called for his resignation. Even The Jefferson Council, as critical as it has been of UVA under Ryan’s tenure, has taken no position on whether he should stay or go.

Nevertheless, it is worth asking the question, in light of the presidential de-fenestrations at Harvard and Penn: what should an elite university look for in a president?

Here’s what Ackman has to say:

I would suggest that universities should broaden their searches to include capable business people for the role of president, as a university president requires more business skills than can be gleaned from even the most successful academic career with its hundreds of peer reviewed papers and many books. Universities have a Dean of the Faculty and a bureaucracy to oversee the faculty and academic environment of the university. It therefore does not make sense that the university president has to come through the ranks of academia, with a skill set unprepared for university management.

The president’s job – managing thousands of employees, overseeing a $50 billion endowment, raising money, managing expenses, capital allocation, real estate acquisition, disposition, and construction, and reputation management – are responsibilities that few career academics are capable of executing. Broadening the recruitment of candidates to include top business executives would also create more opportunities for diverse talent for the office of the university president.

Furthermore, Harvard is a massive business that has been mismanaged for a long time. The cost structure of the University is out of control due in large part to the fact that the administration has grown without bounds.

UVA is a $4 billion institution, with an academic division (which we normally think of as the university) and a health system, each of which generates roughly $2 billion in revenue. Ryan is only the latest in a long line of UVA presidents with no expertise whatsoever in managing health systems. Governor Glenn Youngkin has appointed two board members — Douglas Wetmore and Stephen Long — with healthcare backgrounds; Attorney General Jason Miyares also appointed, as university counsel, Cliff Iler, who  has legal expertise in health-systems. Whether that is sufficient to provide useful guidance to UVA’s health enterprise, which faces intense pressure to grow in order to achieve economies of scale, is an open question.

UVa is also in the hospitality industry. It owns the Boar’s Head Inn, the Birdwood Golf Course, and the Forum Hotel at the Darden School. The university develops real estate to accommodate its growing research and academic functions. And, of course, the university manages major auxiliary business enterprises such as dormitories, food plans, and an athletic program.

It may or may not be fair to accuse UVa of being “mismanaged” from a business perspective. It is one of only two public universities in the country with a AAA bond rating. However, Virginia’s auditors of public accounts have identified material misstatements in the health-system finances and, most recently, it was revealed that the McIntire School of Business was operating at a previously unrecognized loss.

There is abundant anecdotal evidence that UVA has engaged in a massive administrative hiring spree, most notably in the creation of a sprawling DEI bureaucracy. However, UVA data suggest that total employee head count has not increased much in recent years. It is worth digging into the numbers to see how employees are counted. UVA has engaged in significant outsourcing. Has head count remained stable only because it has off-loaded lower-level employees from the books through outsourcing as rapidly as it has hired more highly paid administrators? Or has UVA found genuine efficiencies that have allowed it to shrink staff over here while adding to it over there? A more assertive Board of Visitors may be able to find out.

It is difficult for alumni and other outsiders to appraise the job Ryan is doing because we don’t know what he is incentivized to do. His employment contract is public record, but the criteria used to award him a significant bonus are not. (We tried to obtain this information through the Freedom of Information Act but were denied). He has excelled as a fundraiser — UVa is close to surpassing its $5 billion fundraising campaign goals way ahead of schedule — and that may be what he is being rewarded for. Is he being rewarded for achieving DEI goals? We don’t know. For boosting research funding? We don’t know. For controlling costs and holding down tuition?

We just don’t know.

James A. Bacon is executive director of the Jefferson Council. This column was published originally in the Jefferson Council blog.