Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Small Voice in the Chorus on UVA

I'm late getting on this bandwagon - I blame the fact that most of what I own is in boxes, and has only recently been delivered to my new home in Ohio. That's knocked a lot of my schedule off kilter. Figures that while I'm moving, the most public higher education governance scandal in years comes along. Given my proclivity for talking about academic governance, I feel the need to say something.

For those not familiar with this mess, the short form is that a very popular and apparently quite effective president at the University of Virginia was fired overnight and without warning by the governing board of the institution. When asked for a reason the Board largely failed to provide one that makes any sense, which has led to both speculation and a great deal of journalistic digging. The latest narrative in the Chronicle is chasing the possibility that this involved a small group of Board members who wanted to drive UVA towards online education. I've no doubt that more details will emerge in the coming days and weeks.

Unfortunately, much of what I want to say has already been said. My friend Steve Saideman has an excellent piece on his blog, which makes points I wish I had made before he did. He is right in pointing out that universities are much more like aircraft carriers than sailboats - anybody who thinks that you can change course quickly simply doesn't know what they're talking about.

To these and other excellent pieces out there (check out here and here), I would add only two other observations:

1) Among the many sins committed by the Board of Visitors in this case, communications is one of the most important. Yes, it appears that the substance of what was done - firing a good president on a whim - was sheer stupidity. But the failure to apparently anticipate the need to explain that decision in public, and the failure to plan a communications strategy ahead of time, raise this from the level of mere mundane stupidity to idiocy of the highest order. If you can't think at least one step ahead to your crisis communications plan, you have no business holding a leadership position of any kind. To my mind, the bumbling, stumbling incoherence which has been the Board's public response disqualifies the lot of them from running anything more complex than a bake sale.

2) There has been, and will continue to be, a lot of conversation about how this is a prime example of the dangers of applying "business models" to higher education. Slate had a good piece that touched on this, but there has been a lot within the higher ed world on this question. This is predictable, because the "business vs. higher education" meme has been around for decades - it's a well-worn path with well-worn arguments on all sides. Personally, I think it's time to move beyond the combative debate to a more constructive conversation, but that's a topic for another day.

The more important point here is that this case is not really about business vs. higher education. That's because while the Board of Visitors people who threw this grenade may have thought they were motivated by "good business practice", what they have done would be bad in ANY industry. Solid businesses that are well-run for the long term don't read a couple of articles in the press (articles they don't really understand) and suddenly fire their CEOs. This isn't how good corporations behave, it's how the Pointy-Haired Boss in Dilbert behaves (and Scott Adams has made this exact joke numerous times).

So what we're seeing here isn't really a case study for why ideas from the corporate sector have no place in higher education. It's an illustration of how bad corporate ideas should't be applied to universities. The lesson is, "don't do stupid things." But that, one would hope, is a sufficiently obvious point for most folks. Although perhaps not to the "leadership" of the Virginia Board of Visitors.

No comments:

Post a Comment