Strange Doings in Charlottesville: Thoughts on the Rise and Fall … and Rise of Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia

The reinstatement of Teresa Sullivan as President of the University of Virginia yesterday marked the end of an incredibly weird two-week story in American academia. When Sullivan was appointed President in Charlottesville two and a half years ago, she seemed like a more than qualified choice to lead one of America’s finest public universities into the murky waters of twenty-first century higher education. Sullivan, a sociologist by training, became a faculty member at the University of Texas-Austin. She rose through a variety of administrative positions – chair of department, deanships, vice provost, dean of graduate studies – at that institution before becoming provost at the University of Michigan, so when she agreed to a five-year contract to lead UVa, it seemed like a natural fit.

Meltdown in Charlottesville?

Sullivan faced familiar but big challenges when she took the job. Texas, Michigan, and Virginia are some of America’s finest big public research universities, but like all public universities these days they also face a bevy of challenges. State support for public universities has been in precipitous decline for at least the last two decades. Even though public universities often explicitly took on the mission of educating low-income students from deprived social backgrounds, élite ‘public Ivies’ like UVa were frequently highlighted for having few low-income students attending on Pell Grants. Few university leaders knew what to make of the opportunity – or was it a threat? – posed by online education to their institutions. And as one recent profile of Gordon Gee, the President of The Ohio State University, highlighted, many university presidents are also feeling squeezed by the emerging student loan debt crisis, on the one hand, and doubts as to whether students are actually learning anything on campus, on the other. It’s enough to make a provost’s bowtie spin.

Still, it was nonetheless surprising when the Board at the University of Virginia opted to terminate Sullivan’s contract a mere two years into her job. As this excellent analysis from fellow historian-blogger Anne Marie Angelo highlights, already throughout the 2011-2012 academic year the board was pondering several reasons they could use to justify Sullivan’s ouster. As early as September 2011, the Board was concerned with the state of University fundraising, which had dropped 13 percent compared to the previous year. They set up a novel committee to ‘evaluate Presidential performance’, an institution which had no precedent in UVa’s history. They made several preparations to deal with litigation regarding ‘personnel matters’. And, notes Angelo, most crucially, there had been engagement between UVa Rector Helen Dragas, Peter Kiernan (a member of the Board at UVa’s business school and a former partner at Goldman Sachs), and the Education Management Corporation (EMC), an online education provider that Goldman had major stakes in. Reading through University documentation, Angelo suggests, Dragas, Kiernan, and other top University administrators made a proposal to Sullivan to privatize and outsource significant portions of the University’s educational offerings to Education Management Corporation, a private for-profit company.

But because EMC was to re-invest significant portions of its profits into the UVa endowment anyway as gifts, and because so many UVa donors and top officers, as Goldman alumni, had a stake in EMC’s success, this act of outsourcing would not only generate profits on the front end (the selling of the rights to teach UVa-branded content). More importantly, it promised to shore up Charlottesville’s longer-term financial position through gifts and donations. The fact that this all fit into Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s vision for privatizing and selling off much of the Commonwealth’s public resources made it sound all the better. The only problem, of course, was where this left UVa’s existing professors and instructors not to be employed through EMC. In any event, Sullivan balked, why appears to have precipitated her removal.

Still, some of the immediate post-facto justifications for Sullivan’s ouster that UVa power brokers found highlighted broader reasons why some saw the firing as justifiable. ‘Here are a few alarming facts about the university’, wrote Paul Tudor Jones II (a major donor to the University) in a June  17. op-ed:

» UVa’s U.S. News and World Report ranking has fallen steadily since 1988 — from No. 15 to No. 25, with a ding from No. 24 taking place as early as last year.

» A full professor at UVa would need a 32 percent raise to earn as much as his/her counterpart at one of the top 10 best paying universities in the nation. Lest this discrepancy be attributed to the fact that UVa competes for faculty with richly endowed private schools and can’t expect to measure up, note that UVa’s average full professor pay of $141,600 doesn’t even place it in the top 10 among four-year public universities nationally.

» UVa’s most recent reported admissions yield is just 43 percent, which means the rate at which students accept a place at UVa after receiving an acceptance letter from Peabody Hall is well under half … and falling. Harvard’s yield rate is more than 80 percent, Yale’s is 66 percent and Stanford’s is 73 percent. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reports a 56 percent yield rate, 13 points higher than that of UVa

Even worse, wrote Jones, people no longer spoke of Virginia as one of the nation’s top universities, period. Instead, ‘conversations around UVa seem confined to “top state schools” or “top public universities” rather than best outright, far less than what most of us aspire to when thinking about our beloved institution. We can do better.’

In spite of these reasons presented, the counter-revolt was powerful enough to swing the momentum back in Sullivan’s favor. Disaffected professors resigned or threatened to resign. Students protested on campus. In spite of all of the talk of the need for progress, forward momentum, and strategic vision, it looked, well, awkward, for a university with as rich a history as UVa to fire its first female President in history after … sixteen days. A bevy of university organizations, from the Jefferson Scholars (a prestigious scholarship program for top students) to the Burke Society, a conservative students’ group, to the boards of sub-institutions of the university, issued statements noting their unhappiness with the decision. Donors threatened to withhold gifts. And, following slightly more than two weeks of crisis, Sullivan was reinstated, now to lead the University in … well, who knows where?

Having had the pleasure of convening a discussion group on university governance with some fellow Rhodes Scholars in Oxford (one of whom was an alumna of UVa), watching the Sullivan scandal was instructive, although it doesn’t necessarily make me change many of my opinions on American university governance in the 21st century. As I’ve highlighted in earlier blog posts, and as commentators like Walter Russell Mead have noted in recent essays, the UVa Board was far from unjustified in thinking that there are serious fiscal and educational challenges that universities face in the 21st century. But the Board’s decision to remove Sullivan, more than procedurally flawed, seems to perpetuate rather than to come to terms with solving some of the contradictions I see in American higher education these days.

What are those problems? One, as Frank Donoghue has highlighted in The Last Professors, is the squeeze that great-but-not-élite institutions precisely like those that Sullivan has made her career in face. Specifically, I’m talking about those institutions, especially public institutions, like Virginia, UCLA, Washington, Wisconsin, Oregon, UNC-Chapel Hill, William and Mary, etc., but also smaller, not truly well-endowed private institutions like the George Washington University, American University, Georgetown, Washington University in St. Louis, etc. These kinds of institutions are prestigious enough, and often located in places inhabited by enough Bobos, that they can dream of being mentioned in the same conversation (as Jones explicitly highlighted) as the Harvards, Princetons, Yales, and Stanfords of the world. They want to have the huge endowments. They want to have star professors. They want to be famous.

The only problem is that they don’t have the cash that those large institutions have. Consequently, it’s hard for them to fall into the virtuous cycle of famous professors doing neat stuff that makes the university famous, which then makes rich people want to have their name attached to a ‘successful’ institution in order to bolster their children’s chances of admission to said institution. In an older world when American state publics (in the sense of California voters, Virginia voters) were keen on funding institutions like Berkeley or Virginia, this wasn’t so much of an issue, but in a world of low growth and voter skepticism towards the funding of public universities, this means that Boards at those institutions (or poorly-endowed private schools) find themselves looking into a potential death spiral of no cash, no ability to attract solid professors, and decline into marginally more prestigious versions of community colleges and smaller state schools – places, that is, that provide an education (often to the least advantaged) but don’t have much capital flowing through their veins, and are poorly placed to vault their graduates up into the power élite. This, I think, is the nightmare that a wealthy donor like Jones was identifying in his op-ed.

It sucks starting off with less money and prestige than the big boys – but that’s the problem many American universities face.

Second, however – and this I think is the real devil of a problem that university presidents face – it is almost impossible for institutions that are not Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford to get to that position without running into a number of contradictions. Take the issue of ‘star professors’, for one. If the sales figures and TV ratings are any clue, most people actually seem to feel quite positively about rockstar professors. People watch the documentaries and read the books that 21st-century teledons like Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson produce because these scholars can present complex material in appealing ways. People like that, and don’t generally seem to begrudge these scholars for their appointments at fancy universities or what would appear to be glamorous globe-trotting lifestyles. The same goes for scholars like Tal Ben Shahar, a positive psychology guru who used to teach at Harvard, big-name economists like Ben Bernanke or Larry Summers, scientists like Richard Dawkins, or physicists like Michio Kaku. Law professors like Amy Chua, Noah Feldman, or Alan Dershowitz are public figures in their own right, even as law schools are bankrupting many an American student.

True, as many of the comments to Walter Mead’s essay cited above bear out, many regular Americans claim to have highly negative feelings towards rockstar professors who spend more time in airplanes than they do in classrooms, which is fair enough, given that they are often partly footing the salaries of said professors while their children sit in classrooms taught by adjuncts or online instructors. But, it seems to me, rockstar professors are fundamentally popular. People like reading their books and watching their documentaries. They want to endow centers for Global Justice, or Human Rights, or Global Something-or-Other that these big names can chair, so that they can look like the patron of someone famous. And people want to have their kids ‘taught’ by them. That might mean that even after you get to the Princeton or Harvard of the world, you still have to compete to get into Cornel West’s, or Robert George’s, or Peter Singer’s, seminar, but people are attracted to the idea of their progeny and capital stoking the egos of these academic Sun Kings.

What’s not to like about rockstar professors, then? Well, for one, they’re expensive. As Jones’ op-ed noted, it’s difficult to induce a rockstar to come even to delightful Charlottesville when your competitors can pay her twice the amount of money to live in Manhattan. NYU President John Sexton is fond of speaking of his institution’s ability to attract top professors because of what he calls its ‘locational capital’ – that is to say, a subsidized apartment in Greenwich Village beats the Faculty Ghetto in suburban Virginia nine times out of ten. It’s true that some of the public institutions that have been successful in raising enough funds have been able to begin to make leaps towards attracting big-name professors. Among the world of historians, for example, Texas made a splash recently when historian (and part-time blogger) Jeremi Suri, a specialist in American history, moved to Austin to take on a new chair – and $200,000 in annual pay, a tidy sum for scholars these days. That’s great if you’re Texas – you’re now part of the way to entering the virtuous cycle of fund-raising and big names – but for smaller schools that can’t make that first step of luring someone of Suri’s stature, they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. The public likes to complain about how little professors work in any event, it seems, so you’re especially screwed as an institution if you have the 20th-best guy rather than the 1st- or 2nd- best guy in the field.

Life has never been better for some rockstar professors, but why stay in Charlottesville or Columbus when the City beckons?

More people want to be your friend, in other words, if you’re already beautiful and wealthy. But the problem many universities like UVa face is that they’re the 15th or 20th most beautiful girl at the dance, or the public school teacher at the bar trying to pick up the ladies – only he’s competing with hedge fund managers. As Donoghue highlighted in The Last Professors, Boards and Presidents at universities in the Top 25 but not at the very pinnacle are facing a rush to rise quickly in the rankings, raise more money, and get more pretty faces to put on their alumni brochures. But in doing so they’re also exacerbating many of the problems that people complain about with higher education. Without a huge endowment, you need high tuition to pay faculty costs and recuit top professors. Places like Princeton, with its huge endowment, can just carry on offering grants to all students, but sooner or later, as at Ohio State, even the most ambitious Presidents are bound to be crushed by the pincers of not enough prestige to warrant the huge price tags, and too much student debt to continue fueling the fire.

The same is true for teaching. Rockstar professors often have lighter teaching loads, although they live far from totally pampered lifestyles: in addition to teaching multiple courses, many of my professors at Princeton were expected to write awesome books every 3-4 years, supervise graduate students and get them jobs, serve on university committees, etc. That said, many institutions like UVa or Ohio State searching for prestige are bound to take on more and more underpaid adjuncts to free up time for those putative rockstars to build up their reputation … only to leave the pastures of Columbus for New Haven or Yale once they’re burnished their credentials. Students taught by the overworked adjuncts lose out, and more middle-class and working-class parents become upset with the universities. These institutions are caught between a rock and a hard place, like the girl at the dance or the teacher at the bar. You can put as much makeup on as you want, or lease a BMW you can’t afford, to compete with those wealthier and more beautiful than you. Perhaps a few will make the leap into the Establishment and gain the acceptance they crave. But most are better off embracing their own idiosyncratic beauty, stop trying to look like Paris Hilton or Brad Pitt (Harvard and Yale), and focusing on developing their own unique talents.

Between a rock and a hard place? University presidents of mid-tier universities, like Teresa Sullivan, will face huge challenges in the next 10-20 years.

What we’ll see, or what I think we’ll see, in other words, are a few institutions that can manage to garner enough momentum to secure a spot among the élite for themselves, and enter than virtuous cycle of money and prestige. NYU appears to be doing its damndest at doing so through its ‘global university’ paradigm, if at the cost of indebting an entire generation of naïve Americans keen on living a Sex in the City lifestyle for a few years, and then selling rich non-Americans on this vision as well. The University of Southern California, only a few miles away from me as I write in the bowels of the Los Angeles Public Library, appears to be doing so by raising obscene amounts of money from its proud alumni base and gambling – wisely, I think – on the idea that money plus Los Angeles’ natural appeals can lure talented faculty from the snooty East Coast. What I’m really interested to see is how institutions like Vanderbilt, Emory, Duke, Rice, Washington University in Saint Louis, Wake Forest, Tufts, and other great-but-not-élite institutions navigate this course. Can they raise enough money and convince enough rockstars to enter that virtuous cycle? Or will they enter the downward spiral towards a more affordable money of education centered more around online delivery, fewer big-name professors, and a greater focus on teaching?

Change is coming in American higher education. What we saw in Charlottesville the last few weeks is probably just the first of many important debates we’ll see, not in Cambridge and Palo Alto, but in Atlanta, Houston, Durham, and elsewhere, about the future of many great American institutions.

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2 thoughts on “Strange Doings in Charlottesville: Thoughts on the Rise and Fall … and Rise of Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia

  1. japamas

    Thank you Timothy– your blog about change in education and Anne-Marie Angelo’s blog about her theory of online profit as the motive for firing Teresa Sullivan at UVa three weekends ago are like the not-dead woman in the tub arising in the old movie Fatal Attraction.

    The question of secrecy arises again in the rehiring of the UVa President.

    I saw a funny play about 20 years ago. The actors came and went through multiple doors on the stage. Then near the end of the comedy it was all done again -/ in Reverse.
    There are two parallel articles now within hours of each other: the Cavalier Daily July 1 ( with one comment about “diploma mill”) and the Richmond Times-Dispatch
    on July 2nd (no comment). Both articles have the same theme of secrecy in a public institution.
    The Richmond and Charlottesville articles raise the same question that you and Anne-Marie have promoted:
    privatizing public education for profit at the expense of excellence in academics.
    Not with transparency but with a sudden wind of change. The two winds of change at UVa — like in the current East Coast thunderstorms — plunge the public into darkness.

  2. japamas

    As the Governor of Virginia pointed to gender non-discrimination in his reappointment of the first female Rector of the Board of Visitors, and the historical hiring (and rehiring) of the first female President of Mr.
    Jefferson’s The University, I must explain that my emloyment of the cinematic image of
    the woman arising from beneath the water in the tub did not refer to any live woman (Sullivan or Dragas).

    As stated in my comment the image of arising from near death heralded the return of another example of board secrecy in the blessed unanimous vote for reinstating Teresa Sullivan as President of UVa. As a UVa-trained-physician I entirely approve!

    But like the rest of the Wahoo world,
    we want advance warning of the sequel.

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