"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reform The University of Virginia And Public Higher Education

There has been a lot written about the fiasco at the University of Virginia.  There had to have been a better way of removing a popular president than in closed-door, cabal-like meetings of old-boy rectors.  However, the issue of the future of the university and the pace of change is very relevant.  UVA has rested far too long on its laurels with the complicity of the Board of Visitors, the State legislature, and the Governor.  It was ‘too good to fail’ thought these and other interested parties.  Its long and storied history, its founding by Thomas Jefferson, and its premier place in the nation’s flagship public universities was hard to ignore – even in these constrained financial times when citizens want to know exactly what they are getting for the tax dollar.

The first question to ask is what is the purpose of public higher education?  What compelling interest does the Commonwealth of Virginia have in maintaining such a system?  Jefferson did not speak of public or private education in the following passage, but indicated why education in the United States was important:

“Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall no longer be pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it susceptible of much improvement, and most of all in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected.”

With respect to government, Jefferson believed that the purpose of education was to help create responsible citizens. He wrote: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right [i.e., well informed]”.  In other words, there was a compelling reason why taxpayer money should be spent to create a public university because the Commonwealth would benefit immensely from the contributions of graduates who had learned about governance, civic responsibility, and the principles of the new American Republic.  Jefferson had a clear vision about the nature and purpose of education.  It was based on the classical tradition of Rome where the sons of the ruling class were educated in governance and leadership.  It was an educational system which, like its Roman antecedent, instilled principles of justice, fairness, elocution, management, and administration.  Those who graduated from it had been trained to lead or to participate in a productive and civic-minded way.

That was and still is a noble principle on which a public university should be based.  It would be a good idea if students of UVA or any other university graduated imbued with these values.  As is quickly evident, this is not the case.  Few public universities have core curricula with courses on history, economics, and political philosophy.  Harvard, which was one of the last holdouts for a Core Curriculum, threw in the towel a number of years ago, capitulating to the demands of faculty who were at war with the Canon, and students who had grown up believing they could take anything they wanted.  Only one or two universities, St. John’s being the most notable offer only a classical curriculum. 

Not only have public universities strayed from the core curriculum and the principles of education enunciated by Jefferson, they, in the interest of ‘diversity’ offer an unmanageable range of peripheral subjects, graduate students with unmarketable degrees, and continue to be funded by taxpayer dollars with little serious scrutiny. In an article in the Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/leading-u-va-back-to-the-top/2012/06/27/gJQAXyEj7V_story.html  writer Danielle Allen writes that even the august and revered University of Virginia has fallen into that morass:

In the past two weeks both Sullivan and Helen Dragas, the leader of U-Va.’s board, laid out strategic visions for the university. Both identified as a current major initiative the Contemplative Sciences Center. Focused at first on yoga, the center’s purview has been expanded and its intellectual content deepened. But its inaugural programs, as described on its Web site, are a Visiting Yoga Instructors Series; a Contemplative in Residence; and Contemplative Science Research Funding. To my eye, this is not the kind of major initiative that will help U-Va. reclaim its position as a leader within higher education in this country or globally.

The issue is not only how to help UVA regain its international standing; it is how to make the university relevant to the Commonwealth of Virginia.  It is the taxpayers of the state, after all, who finance the university (with the help of in-state tuitions and much higher out-of-state fees.  UVA has the second highest out-of-state student enrollments of any public college or university in Virginia).  Is the pursuance of this international standing more a vanity issue, enabling the state to attract more national and international investment? If over one-third of UVA students are out-of-state, is it fulfilling its mandate to serve the Commonwealth?  And in these days of total mobility, even if a student is from Virginia, the chances that he or she will remain in Virginia after graduation are very small.

So the issue facing UVA is not a simple one, for the now-famous Board of Visitors and ultimately the legislature and governor must decide not only how to improve the university but why.  There are approximately the same number of private and public institutions of higher learning in Virginia.  To be fair, none of the private ones have the stature and reputation of UVA, but that misses the point – why should the taxpayers of Virginia, or any other state, finance a public education system which no longer directly benefits the state, educates a significant number of out-of-state students, and is diversifying its curriculum to such a degree that the vision of Jefferson is but a distant memory?

As president, Sullivan’s signal contribution has been to work hard and fast to rebuild those foundational components. The position of the chief academic officer, the provost, is fundamental to whether any research university tends appropriately to its own fundamentals: hard-headed decisions about where to allocate dollars for appointing faculty, rigorous vetting of new hires, tough standards for review and promotion. Sullivan rightly prioritized returning the provost role to center stage at U-Va.

There is a very good reason why the faculty of UVA was outraged at the firing of President Sullivan – her narrow, conservative approach to reform did not threaten their jobs.  Now that the genie is out of the bottle, and everyone is now looking at UVA, they are quaking in their boots.

It is not a coincidence that in America there is now a spotlight both on the nature of government, and the nature of public education.  For too long citizens have just assumed that government has always existed and should always exist; and there has been rarely a close look at the purpose of government – what government programs could be handled better by the private sector?  Which could be eliminated altogether? What are the criteria for measuring the success of public programs to form a basis for justifying their continuance?

Similarly, for too long have citizens taken public education for granted without looking at it closely.  It has for too long been a cheap ticket to a degree in a society which demands degrees over experience and talent.  It has become far removed from the needs of the state whose money finances it, and distant from national goals.  Public universities not only teach a civic education, but they do not provide the vocational education that many students need.  It is no wonder that recent graduates from these universities cannot find a job – they are not qualified.

Now that the Board of Visitors has capitulated and the university is back to the status quo, the issue of reform is likely to be hidden away for a while.  Perhaps when the dust settles the people of Virginia can take a long hard look at UVA – and the entire public higher education system of the state – and decide whether or not their taxpayer dollars are being well-spent.  The free ride is over.

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