(Editor's note: On June 26, the University of Virginia's governing board reinstated Teresa Sullivan as president of the university.)
The dramatic goings-on at the University of Virginia these past two weeks have brought forth a torrent of commentary, most of it hostile to the removal of President Teresa Sullivan by the Board of Visitors, led by its rector, Helen Dragas.
On June 22 Rector Dragas released a detailed statement outlining the reasons for Sullivan’s removal and the strategic challenges the university faces in the coming years. To my eye, those concerns seem substantial and thoughtful, and perhaps they will quiet some of the sturm und drang that has surrounded this event.
I have nothing worthwhile to add on the merits of the board’s decision. Instead, I would like to draw attention to what I think is the more significant and overlooked meta-theme in this drama. What we are witnessing is an anachronistic anomaly. This is one of the very rare instances of a university Board of Visitors (the Virginia term of art for trustees) actually taking its job seriously.
For more than a century and a half, university boards (both public and private) have been papier mache institutions. Serving on such a board is understood as an honor usually doled out to donors or public figures. The boards generally have perfunctory meetings and act as cheerleaders and rubber stamps of the administration. Occasionally they will intervene in their personal interests, for example, trying to direct endowment funds into investment funds that they manage.
The very rare instances in the modern era when a board has taken substantial action overwhelmingly fall into the following three categories: (1) some terrible scandal (e.g., Penn State); (2) insolvency; or (3) faculty revolt against the administration. This is different.
In response to the ouster of President Sullivan, the faculty generally, and many of the leading figures in particular, pronounced themselves appalled by the board’s actions. The lesson of the faculty revolt is that as a body the faculty take it as a given that the institution is to be run in their interest. Unless they object to the president, the board must not butt in.
While there may be some institutions where this faculty power is expressed through a faculty senate, in my experience that is unusual. The faculty’s interest is so pervasive and powerful that it requires no formal body to express it, and so generally the faculty senate busies itself with peripheral matters. Everyone understands that the role of the president is to generate revenues and dole it out to the faculty.
So I repeat: the startling aspect of the University of Virginia affair is that the board acted on an issue of substance when it was not absolutely compelled to do so by circumstance—and in a manner adverse to the wishes of the faculty.
Such an action was not always startling. A large majority of the private universities in America had their origin as appendages to religious denominations. Elders of the denomination served as trustees. They not only had a substantial influence (for good or ill) on the ethos of the institution but also on curricular and faculty choices, and they were concerned with getting value for their dollars. Because they had educational goals for the institution, they were anxious to restrain costs.
With a trivial few exceptions, that model is but a distant memory.
If the board does not run the institution, then who does? Applying the analogy of the commercial corporation, one might suppose that it is the current management—the administration. And that is how things work at some of the lower rungs of the academic world, where powerful and long-serving college presidents control all corners of the institution.
But at the higher-level academic institutions, the faculty and senior administrators are in a symbiotic relationship. While individually each faculty member is politically subordinate to the administration, collectively they are superior. The administrators serve for the benefit of the faculty.
But the faculty does not own the university in the sense that they have a partnership holding in the equity of the institution. Each individual professor’s claim on its resources lasts only as long as he remains on the faculty, and he may not transfer his claim to another aspirant.
In this respect, universities have taken on many of the attributes of worker-owned firms in the former Yugoslavia. Because the workers (in this case, faculty) cannot take their share of the capital value of the firm with them when they leave, they have little or no interest in constraining costs and accumulating a surplus. The greater their mobility, and the nearer they are to retirement, the less their concern. Their interest is to take out as much of the capital as possible for themselves over the course of their career.
That is the model we have unconsciously become accustomed to and the one that has led to the imbroglio at the University of Virginia. I say “unconsciously” because the faculty do not blatantly assert their ownership and may not even be conscious of it themselves. The idea that the legal owner, the board, acting on behalf of the nominal equitable owner—the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia—should have the gall to actually act like an owner comes as both a surprise and a shock. To me, it is a pleasant surprise.
I will close by saying that I concur with what my friend Henry Manne, former dean of the George Mason University School of Law, wrote in an email:
Let's just say that the board did not like Sullivan's politics, probably the most damnable accusation that could be made. Would removing her for that reason be such a surprising and unforgivable error on the part of the board? What other system do we have for the reflection of political will in state institutions than something like what was done here, albeit it is rare to find that much "political will" on the part of governing boards?
Would it be better to let the unelected or ideologically selected faculty determine the strategic course of the university? That, of course, is what we normally do, but, I assure you, that is as much an accident of history and mistaken political decisions in the past as it is of any logical or reasoned system of governance. It certainly is not “divinely” ordained that the faculty should run these things. They have been in control now for a long time, and look at the fine mess they have made of it.
I have no idea of the merits in this particular dispute, but I heartily applaud a board with enough guts to stare down the usual academic establishment. Would there were a lot more of them.
I heartily agree.