Phi Beta Cons

Meltdown at the University of Virginia

It gets vicious in higher education. The latest illustration is the conflict at the University of Virginia, where the board fired the president, Teresa Sullivan.

The board made its decision in secret and never held a meeting for the vote. Once the decision was made, the campus erupted in protest. Now, the vice rector (who previously went along with the decision) has resigned, one faculty member has quit, and others have said they won’t work with the interim president. And the governor has chastised the board.

Let’s be clear. The board is in charge of the university. If its members felt that they had a “good” president but not a “great” one, and felt that they could find a “great” one, they had the right and perhaps the obligation to make a change.

Such decisions will never be popular. In a tiny microcosm of the situation in Virginia, Peace College, a women’s school in North Carolina, decided to change its name (to William Peace University) and to go co-ed. That board, too, operated in secrecy. And, predictably, a furor arose. Well-to-do alumnae said they wouldn’t give to the school, others tried to protest on the campus (where they were escorted off), and even the former president said that the decision was misguided.

If the small amount of explanation that has filtered through is correct, the board may be envisioning the wrong future for the University of Virginia — one with a much greater emphasis on online education. If the board expects online education to bring in large net revenues, it is probably mistaken. And there may be power politics involved — in fact, there must be.

But the trustees, at the very least, are thinking about the future. It’s their job. We rarely see such a furor as the one at the University of Virginia because trustees rarely have a vision of the future, much less act on it.

Jane S. Shaw — Jane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...

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