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.


  1. slc1 says

    There has been a lot of erroneous reporting on this subject. For instance, the instigator of the coup d’etat against Ms. Sullivan, Helen Dragas, was appointed by former Governor Kaine, not the current Governor McDonnell, contrary to some reports in the media.

    In today’s news, the governor has finally gotten off his derriere and sent a letter to the governing board of the university telling them to solve the problem or be removed. As it turns out, the term of Ms. Dragas expires in a week so he can solve that problem himself by not reappointing her.

    However, the gist of the article by Mr. Carey is correct. The individuals who are appointed to the governing board of the university consist solely of fat cat contributors to the various successful gubernatorial campaigns, as some sort of a reward for their activities.

    However, their are some possible indications that there is a serious conflict of interest involving Ms. Dragas. She has been pushing for increased use of the internet and on-line courses to cut costs. It also appears that she may have investments in a company that enters contractual arrangements with universities to provide such courses.

    I don’t know what Prof. Singham’s view of on-line courses is; however, Prof. Larry Moran, a biology professor at the University of Toronto has been highly critical of the quality of such courses and has labeled some of the biology courses offered on-line by a joint Harvard/MIT effort as seriously flawed.

  2. F says

    WRT online courses: Seriously flawed, how? Is it to do with the intrinsic nature of courses online, or was the material flawed just like not-online material is/can be? (Your perspective – I’m not asking you to summarize Moran. 😉 )

    Because I think it is an interesting area, here’s the stuff Moran says : , this being the entry to which I suspect slc1 is referring: .

    Yeah, just slapping them together is a poor job of work. Really, I thought online education would have been much, much further along by now in terms of the technical systems and course quality. We should have been where we are now like fifteen years ago. (Bandwidth availability to all possible consumers aside, I mean on the educator’s end.)

  3. Mano Singham says

    I don’t have a very informed opinion on the state of online courses. In principle, they should be a wonderful educational tool since it enables so many more people to learn at their own pace and time. The problem is when the courses are tied to certification and accreditation. That is when people take the course not to learn something but to get certified and this can lead to abuses by the provider and the learner. This is also a problem with face-to-face education but there the quality control can be a bit better.

  4. slc1 says

    I am not competent to personally evaluate on-line education. I was just quoting Prof. Moran who has evaluated on-line biology courses offered by Harvard/MIT and found then wanting. I believe his position is that the information in the courses contains numerous errors.

    However, I did note in an article a few weeks ago that the introductory courses offered on-line are being used by high schools to supplement their materials in AP courses so, at least, from that prospective, there appears to be some value in them. Of course, this is provided that the information in them is correct, which, judging from Prof. Moran’s complaint, can’t be taken for granted, even if they are being offered by prestigious schools like Harvard and MIT.

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