The debacle at the University of Virginia

Teresa Sullivan, the president of one of the most prestigious universities in the country, was summarily fired after just two years on the job and despite the fact that there was no hint of scandal or that she had done her job poorly. Kevin Carey argues that part of the problem lies in the fact that rich political contributors to winning candidates get rewarded by being appointed as Trustees to public universities.

The UVA fiasco also illustrates how blithely states take the task of governing their public universities. No other area of major public expenditure exists at such a remove from accountability to elected officials. The 16-member Board of Visitors consists almost exclusively of wealthy businesspeople who were friends with or donors to the various Virginia governors who appointed the board. Vice Rector Kington, who resigned several days ago, served a previous term on the board after donating tens of thousands of dollars to Governor Mark Warner. Then he backed the opponent of Warner’s successor, Tim Kaine, and was kicked off. Then he donated over $100,000 to current Governor Bob McDonnell, and was reinstated. Kiernan chaired the board of the business school foundation because he donated millions of dollars to the business school. The nature of the financial transactions involved is readily apparent. (McDonnell, no profile in courage, has refused to take any action to stem the growing crisis.)

A university governed entirely by wealthy businesspeople steeped in a culture of corporate strategy memos will reflect the peculiar perspectives of the modern rich. The financialized American economy has made vast fortunes for gamblers with poor impulse control who mistake a lucky roll of the dice for intelligence and virtue. It’s not surprising that the same kind of fast-twitch thinking would lead a group of homogenous financial patrons talking among themselves to lose patience with a career higher education administrator who was insufficiently galvanized by the latest columns from Thomas Friedman and David Brooks.

There has been an increased tendency of rich people using their money to muscle into educational policy, Bill Gates being the most prominent example. Some of them either think that universities should be run like businesses or that the university should serve the corporate agenda, and they use the lure of their money to try and get their way. This is not a good thing.

After the initial shock at Sullivan’s abrupt ouster, there has been a rising groundswell of protest and support for her, forcing the governor of Virginia to say that he will fire all the members of the Board of Visitors (which is what they call their trustees) unless this issue is resolved by Tuesday.