Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Concluding the UVA Saga: Return of the Jedi (President)

As many who read this blog undoubtedly already know, Teresa Sullivan was reinstated as president of the University of Virginia yesterday by a unanimous vote of its governing board, including from the board chair who had engineered her ouster in the first place. As has been true over the past few weeks, there will be plenty of commentary on these latest events - mine is only one voice in a large chorus. Nevertheless, a couple of thoughts:

First, I would disagree with one phrase in the Chronicle's opening paragraph (linked above): that Sullivan's reinstatement is an "improbable comeback tale". I think that this outcome was not only probable but entirely predictable. The damage that was done by Sullivan's firing was vast. Prominent faculty were leaving, alumni were upset (and therefore less likely to give $$), students were protesting. Had the decision been upheld, recruiting students, faculty, and alumni dollars would have been much more difficult for the foreseeable future - and these things are the lifeblood of any university. Finally, the political ambitions of the board members themselves could not survive this debacle. If the board's Rector, Helen Dragas, wants to go on to bigger and better things, being known as the woman who trashed UVA was not going to get her there. In social science lingo, reinstatement was overdetermined - too many forces pushing for it, not enough pushing the other way.

The second and more important observation has to do with the argument that this case has rekindled about the nature of higher education. Even in retreat, Ms. Dragas has continued to insist that "the days of incremental decision-making in higher education are over, or should be." She insists that the only mistake here was process, not substance - that "we did the right thing, the wrong way."

This suggests that Ms. Dragas continues to cling to a delusional fantasy about higher education: that if you are bold and "radical" enough, you can remake universities like Jack Welch remade corporations, changing their fundamental direction and strategy in a short period of time. (Of course, one of the things Welch did to GE was get it involved deeply in financial services....) There continue to be those who think that universities really should be "run like corporations", that they should be agile and nimble and strategically dynamic and all those other great buzzwords that people in the business world love to sling around.

This fantasy rests on two errors. The first is that radical transformation of a business's direction is a good way of doing business. The history of successful business suggests otherwise. Ford has been around for nearly 100 years doing the same thing today that they did at their founding: making cars. Apple computer, the world's most valuable brand, makes innovative technology products with the same focus today as they did in the early 1980s.

Yes, some companies do remake themselves in fundamental ways - usually quite rarely, and often to uncertain effect. In the last decade a number of airlines went from running planes and flying people around to being commodity speculators - because they thought that the "new strategic environment" demanded it. That hasn't worked out very well for many of them.

The second mistake is in believing that rapid transformation of a large university is possible, and that the lever to do so is replacing the president. As my friend Steve Saideman pointed out, universities are a lot more like aircraft carriers than sailboats - turning quickly isn't a function of motivation but of physics. Anyone who understands how a university works - how education is "produced" - will understand this intuitively.

The primary "producers" of education are faculty - people who have taken the time and the trouble to become experts in their fields. Unless you can come up with a way to educate students that doesn't involve expertise - and nobody yet has - you have to run an organization that can recruit these experts and keep them happy. You can appoint anybody you like as president of a university, but if that president tries to lead where the faculty don't want to go the result will be a parade of one. Presidents can do a lot of damage to a university in the process of trying to drag an unwilling faculty over a cliff (or to a different pasture), and they may whine and complain a lot about how "stubborn" and "unreasonable" the faculty are. But in the end, the faculty win, because administrations don't educate students - faculty do.

This, by the way, has been an argument that faux-business types have used against tenure for years. But tenure isn't really the issue here. Yes, faculty without tenure can be fired if they don't cooperate with some new "strategic direction", whereas tenured faculty have more immediate security. But as the UVA debacle shows, if you tick the faculty off the ones you lose first are the tenured faculty with stellar records - your superstars. And everyone, tenured and untenured alike, can and will vote with their feet. If the faculty perceive an institution as being badly-run, many of them will find a way to go elsewhere - and in any competitive labor market, it's always the best and the brightest who are most likely to leave, because they have the most opportunities.

So describing the UVA mess as another instance of a "debate" between two somehow equal and opposite sides is simply misleading. What Sullivan's rapid firing and reinstatement demonstrate instead is what happens when delusional ideas run into reality. Smart university leaders and boards of trustees would do well to learn this lesson.

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