Kevin Carey on the University of Virginia and Reputational Competition

by Reihan Salam

As expected, Kevin Carey, now of the New America Foundation, has written a nuanced take on the recent controversy at the University of Virginia, where a small group of influential alums engineered the sacking of a president popular with faculty in part because she refused to move aggressively to embrace online instruction. But I think he might have buried the lead. He rightly laments the way states tend to govern public universities, e.g.:

The UVA fiasco also illustrates how blithely states take the task of governing their public universities. No other area of major public expenditure exists at such a remove from accountability to elected officials. The 16-member Board of Visitors consists almost exclusively of wealthy businesspeople who were friends with or donors to the various Virginia governors who appointed the board. Vice Rector Kington, who resigned several days ago, served a previous term on the board after donating tens of thousands of dollars to Governor Mark Warner. Then he backed the opponent of Warner’s successor, Tim Kaine, and was kicked off. Then he donated over $100,000 to current Governor Bob McDonnell, and was reinstated. Kiernan chaired the board of the business school foundation because he donated millions of dollars to the business school. The nature of the financial transactions involved is readily apparent. (McDonnell, no profile in courage, has refused to take any action to stem the growing crisis.)

Yet I think he underestimates the importance of a development he notes earlier in the piece:

Surprisingly, Sullivan’s failure to aggressively pursue online higher education was part of the narrative portraying her as behind the times. For most of the last decade, Internet-based courses have been seen as the province of for-profit colleges that are as far in public reputation from Charlottesville as one can be. But as I pointed out in March of this year in TNR, Stanford and M.I.T. are now leading the way in offering a new breed of free online courses that enjoy an association with elite schools. Two months later, Harvard announced that it was jumping on the online bandwagon.

It was the first time an elite university seemingly got into the online game not because it thought this was a good idea, or that there was money to be made, but because it was afraid of being left behind its peers in adopting the new new thing. Reputational competition is an enormous motive force atop the higher education food chain. Three months after Harvard’s move, in her original firing statement, Dragas noted that “higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions.”

That reputational competition is now spurring America’s great research universities to become more accessible strikes me as an extremely important and positive development. Carey is open to this, with a caveat:

UVA should indeed pursue new opportunities in online education (and has established some programs already), so that it can serve more of those 28,000 applicants and many others besides. But translating an intensive undergraduate liberal arts experience to the Internet isn’t an easy task. As a public university, UVA needs to serve in-state students from diverse academic and economic backgrounds. It doesn’t actually do this very well—the percentage of students on Pell grants is among the lowest of any public university in America—but the obligation remains.

But whatever good intentions that the University of Virginia Board of Visitors may have had were quickly overwhelmed by its parochial anxieties.

This could be true, and Carey certainly makes a strong case. But the fact that reputational competition now biases elite universities towards openness rather than away from it can’t be a bad thing. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.