Neoliberalism Comes to Mr Jefferson’s University: UVa, the UC, and Scandal

Although it’s not particularly strong, I still feel an attachment to Mr Jefferson’s University.  I received an MA there and spent additional years not writing a dissertation.  I worked for several years as a docent at the historic Rotunda and even spent five months as the Interim Administrator of that building.  I had a good life in Charlottesville and I had some formative intellectual experiences at UVa (although few of them occurred in my actual department).  I still keep in touch with a number of friends from my time there–people who feel much closer to the school than I do–and I have recently witnessed (on Facebook) their anger over the successful putsch that ousted Teresa Sullivan as president of that university.

Although there are many situation-specific details (more on this later) to Sullivan’s firing, the underlying story boils down to a group of unaccountable, rich business people (who happen to be political appointees) wanting to run the university like a (different kind of) business.  Now “running the university like a business,” as it tends to be understood in today’s climate in higher ed, can entail a number of things, including:

All of these appear to be in play in the UVa situation.  If you want to read more about the Sullivan ouster, Kris Olds has a comprehensive collection of links here and Siva Vaidhyanathan’s piece is still one of the best.

But let’s go back to what I argue is the underlying narrative here: “a group of unaccountable, rich business people (who happen to be political appointees) wanting to run the university like a (different kind of) business.”  While I share the outrage of members of the UVa community, it’s hard for me to be shocked by this narrative.  Because the same thing has already been happening for the last four years at an equally prestigious (and larger) university: the University of California.

“Strategic Dynamism”? Strategic Transparency!

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to be a higher education hipster (“we were victims of privatization first!”).  But I think it is interesting that the UC continues to be left out of discussions about the corporatization of higher education.  For example, in a post that includes a lot of smart analysis, “Doctor Cleveland” suggests that what makes the UVa situation noteworthy is that the reshaping of education by businesspeople is happening at an elite school.  Cleveland notes that this kind of thing tends to happen at places like “Prairie State at Lonely Rock,” where “elite decision-makers have already written you off because you couldn’t get into a better school.”  The key development for Cleveland is that a UVa is now being treated as our elites have treated lesser schools for years:

But UVa is not a school for people that our policy elite wants to write off. UVa is for students that Virginia’s power brokers view as actual students, with actual futures. And the University is something in which the state, as a whole, has long taken great pride. Giving Mr. Jefferson’s University the Prairie State-Lonely Rock treatment, if it sticks, will be a sign that what’s been happening at Prairie State-Lonely Rock will soon happen everywhere in public higher education. There will no longer be a high-quality option offered at a few flagship schools while the other public universities became playgrounds for whatever educational and management fads are popular among neoliberal business types. All of the public universities will be neoliberalized, with strategically dynamic visionary CEOs free to run the places as they choose. Maybe that will be great. Maybe it won’t. But if it doesn’t go well, there won’t be any other kind of public university to choose from.

But the problem with Doctor Cleveland’s analysis here is that the neoliberalization of elite public universities is not new (and indeed, it might be worth looking back to the changes in the University of Texas system that preceded the changes in the UC).  The forced privatization of a major public university by a cabal of rich political appointees is the same whether it’s being spearheaded by UVa’s Helen Dragas or UC’s Richard Blum.  Indeed, all of the rhetoric that is being applied to the situation at UVa–the “corporatization,” the “patently unbalanced and inward-oriented board, drawing from a very narrow segment of society,” the “robber barons“–is the same critique that we have been aiming at the UC for the past five years.

Thomas Jefferson: “change agent.”

My point is not that individual commentators and bloggers have to talk about the UC if they want to write about events at UVa (or, for that matter, vice versa–although there have been two excellent pieces by UC-based bloggers that attempt to find a framework that encompasses both schools).  Rather, I’m interested in why the privatization of the UC, while it has been a focal event for those of us directly affected, has seemingly produced less public outrage and press attention than the events at UVa.  Why is what is happening at UVa a scandal, whereas what is happening at the UC is unavoidable though perhaps regrettable?  Both schools are being remade–and in much the same way–under the cover of a crisis, so how did the public discourse around UVa’s Board of Visitors turn into a “shitstorm” in a way that we haven’t seen at the UC?  (The one possible “shitstorm” so far at the UC would be the coverage of the UC Davis pepper-spraying incident.  However, very little of the public discourse around that attack focused on UC privatization–one of the reasons why the students were protesting in the first place.  The scandal in that case was the police attack, not the changes to the UC that, in several ways, produced the attack in the first place.)

Let’s look at the difference in the media coverage.  The Washington Post already has already posted four separate articles today on the Sullivan firing.  And the sum total of their reporting over the past week eclipses the number of articles in the last year in the Los Angeles Times that mention UC President Mark Yudof by name.  Indeed, I would not be surprised if more reporting on UVa has been done by the Post and several of the local Virginia newspapers (especially in Charlottesville) in the last week than both the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle have done on the UC in the past three years.  And that’s not even considering the tenor of the coverage: this UVa story is about the machinations of businesspeople making a power grab, whereas UC stories tend to be about protesting students who just don’t want to pay higher tuition (despite a state budget crisis).

So why is the privatization of the UC less of a scandal (and, indeed, rarely even recognized as such)?  The complete answer is no doubt complicated, but I think there are several relevant factors here.  One reason, I think, has to do with the connections between the major media outlets in California and the UC Regents.  I don’t think it’s an accident that the major newspapers in California have been reluctant to cover the ways in which UC Regents profit from the decisions they make as UC Regents.  Regent Dick Blum, for example, seems particularly untouchable as far as the Bay Area media are concerned (as is his wife, Senator Dianne Feinstein).  Almost all of the relevant journalism on Blum and the UC Regents has been done by small independent newspapers (after, at least on one occasion, the story was killed by major news sources due to pressure from Feinstein).  Perhaps the members of UVa’s Board of Visitors, while obviously powerful and well-connected, do not have the necessary connections to kill this story (or to reframe it in a more flattering light).

I think it also matters who is seen to be implementing the privatization program.  Helen Dragas’s mistake was to give the appearance that a non-academic is calling the shots at UVa, whereas, at UC, most of the Regents’ dirty work is being carried out by a nominal academic: UC President Mark Yudof (an undistinguished law professor).  What is important about Yudof is that he appears to be an academic administrator, not a businessperson–regardless of the fact that he is implementing the agenda of business.  Yudof is, more or less, Dick Blum’s proxy.  Indeed, evidence suggests that Yudof was personally selected by Blum to serve as UC President.  And yet, by virtue of his academic and administrative background, Yudof can continue to claim to be an expert on higher education without raising the same questions about motives that Dragas’s actions have.  Apparently, Dragas covets a Yudof of her own and, in an attempt to get one, tipped her hand too publicly.  (Even so, no matter what happens to Dragas, there is good reason to expect that whoever takes the reins next as UVa’s president will be more attentive to the agenda of the businesspeople on the Board of Visitors than was Sullivan.)

Finally, I think the reaction of the faculty matters.  Faculty–when they are organized–can influence the discourse around public education.  Now I’m not going to claim that the faculty at UVa are more strongly opposed to a corporatized university than faculty in the UC.  But I do think it is remarkable that, within days of Sullivan’s firing, the UVa Faculty Senate passed a vote of no confidence in Dragas and the Board.  By contrast, the UC faculty–on any campus–have not managed to organize any sustained opposition to the Regents’ increasing privatization of the UC system.  Indeed, the faculty at UC Davis weren’t even willing to condemn their chancellor after she presided over an unprovoked attack on student protestors.  And while it’s true that Dragas’s actions seem almost designed to enrage faculty and to spark a revolt, the faculty at UVa are to be applauded for their quick, strong response.  That response has helped to shape the way events at UVa are talked about.


I promised earlier that I would mention some situation-specific details about Sullivan’s firing and the aftermath.  This event has already produced some good reporting and some very good analysis (and I’ve linked to both throughout the above).  However, I would also hate for the “ephemera” to slip away.  In addition to reporting and analysis, there has been much published that will be forgotten within days but that deserves attention because it is funny or entertaining.  And so, here are some links to tidbits that I have found funny (intentionally or not), enjoyable, or ironic:

  • A prominent UVa professor resigns, refusing “to be associated with an institution being as badly run as the current UVA.”  If only most faculty were willing to write such a plain letter of resignation.
  • “Rector Dragas’ Statement, Translated into Plain English”
  • Helen Dragas’s sister writes an op-ed in the local paper to defend Sullivan’s firing.  The whole thing is absolutely ridiculous, but here’s a sample: “My sister has not shared with me any of the specific reasons why President Terry Sullivan was removed, but if you know Helen like I do, you would undeniably trust her judgment and forethought.”  Glad that’s settled!
  • While we’re on the subject of ill-advised op-eds, here’s billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones suggesting that noted “change agent” Thomas Jefferson is looking down from heaven and “cheering this bold action by the Board of Visitors.”
  • The Declaration of Independence“: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for a Board to dissolve the administrative bands which have connected a President with a University, and to assume for themselves the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and the Bond Market entitle them, it is best to do it secretly, quickly, and in the middle of the night.”
  • The word “GREEED” is graffitied onto the columns of the historic Rotunda.  This is apparently an unwelcome addition to the permanent “graffiti” for several of UVa’s secret societies that already graces the Rotunda steps.

2 thoughts on “Neoliberalism Comes to Mr Jefferson’s University: UVa, the UC, and Scandal

  1. Neo-Liberalism is affecting everything. It’s now on a local level with reduced tax revenue resulting in local government firing everyone and shrinking the scope of what they are actually able to do. “Private/Public” partnerships are just a way for those municipalities to sell off assets to make their yearly budgets. No one gets a raise, unions are broke, and the plutocracy remains unchecked. Tis sad times. I really enjoyed what you wrote.

    • Thanks, Matt. I agree that we live in sad times. And you’re right–the privatization of what used to be local government services is horribly depressing. And I fear that public sector unions are pretty much done for–even in states like CA (where they supposedly have strength).

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