I’ve followed the story about the ouster and reinstatement of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan quite closely. It’s a fascinating tale, full of intrigue, missteps, and people power. One interesting perspective from a faculty member (Siva Vaidhyanathan) is here
There are a number of ways to think about this–a battle over restructuring, the corporatization of the university, another episode in partisanship. I keep coming back to something else, our own debates over restructuring in the Episcopal Church. Of course, the situation is rather different (we’ve got no billionaires trying to call the shots), but there are similar tactics in play–secrecy, cabals, power plays (from all sides). Some of the rhetoric is the same, too. We’ve got to change because of the rapid change in our society, for example.
There’s probably also another parallel, the question of mission. Whom do we serve, why do we exist? Those questions are always at the forefront of debates in the church; they are also at the heart of the conflict in the academy right now.
Vaidhyanathan has this to say about the mission of higher education:
Universities are supposed to be special places where we let young people imagine a better world. They are supposed to be able to delay the pressures of the daily grind for a few years. They are supposed to be able to aspire to greatness and inspire each other. A tiny few will aspire to be poets. Many more will aspire to be engineers. Some will become both. Along the way they will bond with friends, meet lovers, experience hangovers, make mistakes, and read some mind-blowing books.
Does that sound wasteful? Does that sound inefficient? Nostalgic? Out-of-sync with the times? Damn right it does.
Perhaps the best lesson we might learn is how not to go about restructuring. The problem at UVA is that the Board of Visitors did not engage the entire university in the conversation about restructuring. Look what happened. Let’s avoid that one.