Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Belated Reaction to UVA Mess

The story of the President of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, being dismissed by the Board of Visitors (think Regents or Governors) has spread far and wide.  I will not get into the details, but provide a few of my reactions.

What is the academic equivalent of "if you mess with the bull, you get the horns"?  Check out this and this.  When folks with, ahem, limited worldviews mess with really smart, over-educated people, they will lose the war of words and ideas.  Yes, the Visitors may succeed in winning the war--who controls UVA--but at significant cost.  Wulf's resignation (the first link) is pretty devastating as he is a man who has done pretty much everything to a high degree of success, that he has been strategically dynamic or dynamically strategic or whatever.  Academics tend to have expertise, access to facts, and a keen ability to put it all together pretty well.  Sure, they have no real power except the power to make people look foolish.  So, the BoV now looks pretty foolish.

The truly stunning thing is that they chose to fire someone who is incredibly rare in the academic enterprise: a university leader respected by pretty much everyone.  Sullivan was apparently able to get everyone to buy in to her approach.  The only folks who didn't like her are a few people on the board.  Otherwise, she was able to convince most of the community to support her.  This should not be underestimated. Herding cats?  Getting academics, students, and everyone else to move in the same direction is harder than herding cats: perhaps herding cats, dogs and birds?  Why mess with that? 

One can debate about whether "business model" as a concept applies to a university given that:
"Universities have multiple inputs & uncountable and unpredictable outputs. And that’s how we like them." From Slate
But the idea that universities should adopt strategic dynamism is silliness.  Universities cannot adjust quickly to exogenous shocks and changes in the marketplace.  Much of what we do involves reputations--that schools are valued for perceived impact, whether that is teaching, the quality of the students or in research.  None of that changes very quickly.  Universities are less like sailboats and more like aircraft carriers--damn hard to turn around quickly.

While I like to generalize and move around in my research, I know there are many things I cannot do, including run a business.  Perhaps those who run businesses might be just a bit more humble about their expertise beyond their experiences.  Dan Snyder has not been very good for the Washington Redskins football team despite being a dandy businessperson.  Peter Angelos was a very successful lawyer, but the Orioles have failed since he got the franchise.  Just perhaps the big business folks who got appointed to the Board of Visitors have few clues about what it takes to run a university.  Just a guess.

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