Nearly two centuries later, as this month’s surprise ouster of U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan demonstrated, the tension between major public universities and the state authorities that fund and direct them has grown deeper than ever.
Inspired by the accountability movement that has swept through the nation’s primary and secondary schools, and driven by financial woes that show no sign of abating, the leaders of U-Va.’s governing board went after Sullivan, portraying her as clinging to fusty old ways, impeding progress and productivity. But Sullivan’s supporters did not fold and may yet win this battle in a culture war that has its roots in Jefferson’s day.
When the U-Va. Board of Visitors convenes Tuesday to decide whether to reverse the sacking of Sullivan, the argument will probably focus on whether the board’s rector, Helen E. Dragas, was right to see the president as an incrementalist in a time that calls for swift change. But the university and state government inevitably must tackle a bigger question: What should the nation’s premier public universities be?
Should they focus on preparing young people for careers in specific high-growth fields, or remain full-service liberal arts institutions, like the private universities they were modeled after?
Public universities have long found themselves caught between politicians, who demand results they can present to constituents as a return on their tax dollars, and academics, who want the resources and freedom to let scholars explore as they choose.
But now, with states facing their toughest financial crisis since the Great Depression, top public universities are struggling to meet urgent new missions with diminishing resources.
At the center of the conflict are governing board members, many of them successful business people, appointed by Republicans and Democrats alike, who want schools to behave more like corporations — measuring student outcomes, boosting faculty productivity and trimming programs that don’t add to the bottom line.
“They’ve got to run more efficiently,” said Virginia House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), a 12th-grade government teacher. “We do want more return for the money — distance learning, using facilities year-round, putting more resources into science, math and technology because that’s where the jobs are.”
Such an approach risks losing sight of a university’s purpose, said Harold T. Shapiro, an economist who was president of the University of Michigan in the 1980s and Princeton University in the 1990s. “It’s very easy to focus on what’s popular or profitable,” he said. “But corporations and universities have different social functions. State universities like Virginia need to ask the people of their state: Do they really want a university of great quality?”