As a state university of international repute, the University of Virginia’s dispute over the firing of its president by an assertive group of trustees has echoed through the world. That Teresa Sullivan was ultimately kept on, after weeks of turmoil on the campus, ought to give some reflection on what higher education means.
And not only in Virginia.
One of Sullivan’s faculty supporters was Siva Vaidhyanathan, whose father came poor but smart to this country and rose to be a professor and scientist. She reflected on his life and how America’s vast commitment to universities changed her family’s life and that of the nation and the world.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Vaidhyanathan rejected a popular notion that universities may be limited to a market-driven approach to offerings and matriculation.
“We could choose to invest in people. We could choose to invest in culture. We could choose to invest in science and technology. We choose instead to imagine that there are quick technological fixes or commercial interventions that can ‘transform’ universities into digital diploma mills,” she said.
UVA is a state university, albeit one of the best ones. It long ago became expensive, an elite institution. As Vaidhyanathan should probably teach her students at the law school, the more elite the institution, the more likely the stresses of a democratic system’s finances — either that of a family, or a state — are to become part of the political process.
In Louisiana, the deep cuts in support to higher education over the last four years have had serious consequences for all the state’s institutions, but particularly those seeking to be leaders in science and research — LSU, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Louisiana Tech in Ruston. Not to mention LSU’s Agricultural Center and Pennington Biomedical Research Center; neither has student enrollments and thus cannot fund operations with tuition.
We’ve said that before in many editorials, and we hope we can be forgiven for stressing this basically utilitarian and economic argument for more state support for higher education. But at UVA, Vaidhyanathan reminds, there’s more than that in the goal of creating “a wiser, more creative society.”
“Universities are supposed to be special places where we let young people imagine a better world,” the professor wrote. “They are supposed to be able to delay the pressures of the daily grind for a few years. They are supposed to be able to aspire to greatness and inspire each other. A tiny few will aspire to be poets. Many more will aspire to be engineers. Some will become both. Along the way they will bond with friends, meet lovers, experience hangovers, make mistakes, and read some mind-blowing books.
“Does that sound wasteful? Does that sound inefficient? Nostalgic? Out-of-sync with the times? Damn right it does. But if we don’t want young people of all backgrounds to experiment with ideas and identities because it seems too expensive to support, we have to ask ourselves what sort of society we are trying to become.”
We believe that this is a healthy reminder that our goal is not the most efficient university but the most productive one. A spreadsheet downsizing of the unpopular classes or obscure seminar subjects might not be the direct path to efficiency in a university.
For many backers of Sullivan, a cautious reformer who became controversial, the lesson of the UVA controversy is a simplistic idea that meddling businessmen on the board should not be calling the shots about the grand ideals of UVA.
However, an examination of the controversy shows that some of the institution’s biggest donors were fans of Sullivan, willing to see incremental change work its way through a beloved institution.
We are in an era of change at LSU in particular, an institution that has a unique mission as a flagship university for Louisiana. Still to be chosen by the political appointees on the Board of Supervisors, its new leadership faces challenges, not merely the obvious and financial.
There’s also the challenge of retaining a sense of the ideals of the university in an era of change, restoring the faith of the faculty and the alumni donors who love LSU that change can occur in consonance with enduring values, not the political whims of the day.
That’s the UVA lesson, the vital importance of the vision thing.
Copyright © 2011, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved