Sympathy for the President?

I shouted out “Who killed the Kennedys?”
When after all it was you and me.

UVa’s board of trustees (“Visitors”) are widely rumored to be considering reinstalling not-quite-ousted President Teresa A. Sullivan after a three-week public-relations debacle that has Sullivan staggering under all the white hats and halos, and the Visitors themselves painted in shades of black (their chair, Helen Dragas, playing Mistress of the Dark Arts). As soon as the Visitors announced the vote of reconsideration, the normally critical Siva Vaidhyanathan cheered “We Won!” to his Facebook friends.

But if Sullivan remains, what has been won, by whom? Sure, defeating a fast-restructuring board is unquestionably a win. Getting press coverage of the laughable charade that is “shared governance” is a win. But if UVa’s faculty, alumni, students and staff end with reinstalling Sullivan, they’ve chalked up a couple of big hits but left all the runners on base.

As I’ve previously observed, Sullivan was less bad for faculty than many possible alternatives. But not being Dragas doesn’t make Sullivan a charismatic visionary on the verge of reclaiming the university from corporate domination. It doesn’t even put her in the league of Susan Herbt at the University of Connecticut and leaders elsewhere, who are hiring hundreds of new faculty.

To the contrary, Sullivan embraced the principles of change demanded by the board that hired her. She oversaw years of no raises and a 2-percent raise pool distributed unevenly. She stonewalled hunger-striking students who wanted economic justice for the numerous on-campus employees of its vendors of outsourced services. She moved immediately upon arrival to implement a version of the responsibility-centered management championed over a decade earlier by her University of Michigan mentor James Duderstadt.

Often described as “every tub on its own bottom,” RCM financial models encourage resource-maximizing, perma-temping, and outsourcing, and strongly tend to over-reward and subsidize already-wealthy units and programs with access to external revenue in the form of grants, while under-acknowledging and poaching the revenue generated by undergraduate teaching.

In short, Sullivan has been a great president–for the Visitors. She is a largely conventional executive with a mostly conventional administrative vision. She was winning the battle that her board wanted waged on campus–and making the faculty like it too.

For the cool-headed among the Visitors, the smart play is easy: rehire Sullivan and calculate that the hoi polloi will retreat from the carnival celebration declaring victory–while continuing in their thralldom.

But what is the smart play for the faculty? How do you move forward after you’ve made your game fighting for a less-detestable executive instead of democracy? If Sullivan is rehired, certainly part of the way forward is to make Sullivan play out the”anti-corporate” role she’s claimed, adding specifics to her vision, such as keeping pace with the hiring plans at U Conn and elsewhere.

At minimum, though, any future self-organizing and mobilizing of UVa faculty might try to figure out how to re-direct sympathy away from the non-plight of a fairly conventional executive. They might even go farther than pointing toward the semi-plight of its not-quite-well-paid-enough full professors, or even to its genuinely underpaid untenured and recently-tenured faculty.

To get beyond the norm of faculty complicity in academic restructuring (“OK, change, so long as it mostly really hurts staff and new faculty”), the UVa professoriate needs to enlarge its cast of heroes and victims. They need to publicize the victimization of the nontenurable, the grad student and the food-service worker living in Charlottesville on $11 an hour or less. From time to time, they might need to add themselves and Teresa Sullivan to the list of those wearing black hats.


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