Virginia’s fight over higher education

22/06/2012 § 2 Comments

The resignation of the president of the University of Virginia has been making the news. She was only half-way through her term when she tendered her resignation, and politics and pressure from the governing board appear to have played a part.

For a wag’s view, click on over to Crooked Timber. Kieran Healy has written a new Declaration of Independence, expressing the board’s opinion of the president (you’ll recall that UVa was founded by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the American colonies’ Declaration).

Expect to see more of this. First of all, boards and presidents don’t necessarily get along. The College of William and Mary (on the other side of Virginia) had a similar but not so rancorous or public episode a few years ago, when the board declined to renew President Nichol’s contract. His Wikipedia entry tactfully notes that Nichol had ‘the shortest tenure for a William & Mary president since the Civil War’.

Three disputes in higher education are creating turmoil, with President Sullivan an unlucky casualty:

  • who should pay?William and Mary reported in 2011 that ‘Over the last generation, state support for William & Mary’s operating budget has gone from over 43% to under 13%.’ Public funding of tertiary education in the US is declining. One push is shrinking state budgets, but there is also a sense that individuals benefit greatly from tertiary degrees. Therefore, they should bear the costs individually. New Zealand is also heading down this track, too.
  • what should students study? — There is a perennial argument that pits a broad liberal arts education against skills training for employment. I won’t re-hash the argument here. However, as student debt increases, the requirement to pay off the debt tends to push students into skills training. It also increases the pressure on universities to demonstrate value-for-money in the short term. They need to show that their graduates are relevant and employed. That pressure means universities need to be more responsive to short-term business trends (well, fads).
  • how should education be delivered? — This is apparently the reef on which President Sullivan foundered. Technology — that is, the internet — makes information search and transfer easy, cheaper, and faster. If education is transferring information, then the internet should make it cheaper, too. Universities are trying to figure this out. So now, we have MIT online courses and the joint project Coursera. But it isn’t as easy as posting lectures online and charging remote students to access them. The notion that education is lighting a fire, not filling a bucket*, applies here.

These are all disputes in progress, and they are bound up in larger social and political currents. They go to contested questions like, ‘what should society provide me, and what should I provide myself?’, and ‘if it is funded with public money, how much control should taxpayers have over recipients’ choices?’ The situation at UVa is a public struggle over the answers to those questions.

*Apparently, from Plutarch: ‘For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.’

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§ 2 Responses to Virginia’s fight over higher education

  • Eric House says:

    My understanding from both the W&M situation and UVA is that those broader issues set the stage, but that the final straw was a percieved dispute with donors. in both cases the ties of the board to certain large donors who were displeased with the president led to the ouster. It isn’t just what should taxpayers get for their money, but more and more millionaires who want their name on a building are calling the shots.

  • Bill says:

    This is where the question of ‘who pays?’ comes in. More public funding means that individual donors have less leverage. A side-effect of ‘user pays’ is the increased power of donors. That ends up changing the nature of the education provided/received. It’s an open question whether this is moving towards a new stable equilibrium. If the new education regime no longer produces the necessary worker-citizens, then what?

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