New book: The Manipulation of Choice (including free chapter)
Trust and Trustworthiness

The “Academic Playground”

Jonathan B. Wight

UVA Board rector Helen Dragas is at it again. You may recall that Dragas fired UVA president Teresa Sullivan last June, without cause or due process (see also here and here). A faculty/student uprising led to Sullivan's reinstatement, with promises by Dragas of playing nice in the sandbox.

But Dragas apparently cannot control her need to micro-manage, according to The Washington Post. A few weeks ago Dragas gave Sullivan 65 goals to implement this year—when there are just a few months left in the semester. Dragas stated: "U-Va. is a public institution. It's not an academic playground, and we have to make some difficult decisions."

No one should think UVA is perfect, or even close to it. A great university is like an ocean liner that changes course over many miles; Dragas is like the captain of a PT boat, zipping in circles around the ocean liner, yelling "Follow me! I said! Follow me right now or you're fired!"

This is so condescending it borders on outrageous. More important, it is dangerously ignorant of the moral norms that have guided higher education and contributed to America's economic flourishing.

Successful businesspeople (of which Dragas is one) populate the boards of higher education. But business and academia operate along different ethical norms—for very good reasons. This is beautifully brought out in Reason Magazine's interview with Paul Romer, one of the architects of "new growth theory." Romer notes that

academic science searches for truth and generates enormous positive spill-over effects. Businesses use those discoveries to develop new products for the market. It is a symbiotic relationship, even as each sector has its own quite different goals and methods:

"When we speak of institutions, economists mean more than just organizations. We mean conventions, even rules, about how things are done. The understanding which most sharply distinguishes science from the market has to do with property rights. In the market, the fundamental institution is the notion of private ownership, that an individual owns a piece of land or a body of water or a barrel of oil and that individual has almost unlimited scope to decide how that resource should be used.

"In science we have a very different ethic. When somebody discovers something like the quadratic formula or the Pythagorean theorem, the convention in science is that he can't control that idea. He has to give it away. He publishes it. What's rewarded in science is dissemination of ideas. And the way we reward it is we give the most prestige and respect to those people who first publish an idea."

To reward scientists we give them tenure, autonomy, and "voice"—meaning the right and duty to participate in the governing of the institution.

The institutions of science and markets arose around the same time, and have worked to propel the Industrial Revolution. But there is no guarantee that these institutions will continue to function well. The 21st century problem is that the market is rapidly encroaching on the institutions of science, possibly corrupting the moral norms. Rather than publishing papers, scientists now patent their ideas and reduce the positive spill-over effects of that research.

While the allure of putting business people on the boards of major public universities is appealing to politicians (who have accepted their campaign contributions), and is on the surface appealing to the university (with its hand out begging for endowment gifts), there are real problems. One is that a business person may have no understanding of the important – and necessary – differences in how a university runs compared to a corporate business.

A university is collegial and democratic. Yes, it is like herding cats. It seems very inefficient to an outsider—everyone doing their own independent thing, with tenure keeping a president from wielding a giant axe.

And, yes, academia is inefficient. But it is inefficient for a reason: no one can predict the future. No one can know (particularly not administrators) which experiment will produce the next big breakthrough. Lots of people working in teams and singly make lots of mistakes or follow what turn out to be dead-ends. But some endeavors produce large gains. The gains more than compensate for the losses. At least, that is the experience of the past 300 years.

Dragas is correct that change can be good and is needed in academia. Certainly waste can be reduced. Some departments need to be pared or eliminated just as others need to be expanded. Society must balance research needs with bodies in the classroom and attention to excellence in teaching. But Dragas' top-down, autocratic methods are destructive of the norms that make the institution work for the long term.

Many decades ago a university I am familiar with brought on a businessman as Board chairman. The first thing he did was insist that because the economy was in a recession all faculty had to take 2% pay cuts. "But why?" they asked. "Well, that's what happens in business during tough times" he replied. "But we're not actually experiencing tough times," they replied. "In fact, our university enrollments are up and our tuition is up. We didn't get bonuses in the boom years like the private sector, either." He went off in confusion, because all his business expertise ran up against a very different culture and economic model.

Dragas, who should have been removed from UVA's board last summer for attempting a coup, has again shown she doesn't have a clue how successful academic programs work. The Princeton Review just named UVA the #1 "Best Value" Public University in the country. That accolade did not happen for efforts this year—it was decades in the making, through the voluntary cooperation of administrators and faculty.

Update:  Soaring tuition costs have everything to do with administrative overhead relating to the explosion of student programs that may have little to do with academics per se.  Perhaps it's time for a stripped-down academia?  Eliminate all varsity sports: let students play in club teams.  But that still leaves large staffs for student mental health, safety, study abroad, housing, accreditation, and amenities like fitness and social life.  The on-line academic model has none of that, but neither does it facilitate the lifelong relationships and critical thinking that are a measure of a great undergraduate experience.


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