June 27, 2012

Danielle Allen is the UPS Foundation professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. She is on the board of Princeton University, Amherst College and the Mellon Foundation, which provides funding to those schools and to the University of Virginia and New York University.

The University of Virginia has gotten its feet under it again. Hallelujah. We should all raise a glass.

Yet we should also take seriously the issues underscored by recent events. The controversy over President Teresa Sullivan’s ouster and reinstatement was framed as a question of whether academic or corporate values should govern higher education. This is the wrong framing. If we faculty rely on it, we will miss important questions.

The right question is how any given institution of higher education should attack its long-range ambitions.

This is a critical conversation. Although technological and economic pressures are unlikely to remake our sector to the same extent that they reshape, say, the world of journalism, the ground is shifting beneath us. At stake is the long-term survival of the intellectual infrastructure necessary to sustain democracy.

How good are we in higher education at strategic thinking?

Before reading further, you should know that I was a candidate for both the presidency and the provostship at U-Va. To admit this is a serious violation of academic protocol. When I learned that the provost’s position would go to the very impressive John Simon of Duke, I wrote to Sullivan to say that I would have been proud to be at U-Va. and to have had the chance to work under her. I still feel that way. That said, I am no longer pursuing positions of this kind and have decided to use my freedom as it should be used: to speak the truth.

Two powerful strategies can be identified in the landscape of higher education: that of Princeton and that of New York University.

Princeton innovates with thoughtful, deliberate moves across the whole of the institution that are intended to evolve, not shake up, the fundamental model; periodically, there are also occasions for more wholesale transformation, as with the admission of women or its no-loan policy.

NYU has chosen a small number of program areas on which to place big bets and to invest for world-class status while also dramatically experimenting with the institutional model by building a network of global campuses.

Deliberate incrementalism is exactly the method to employ when you are at the top. Aggressive, visionary experimentation makes more sense when one is trying to get back to the top. Sullivan has suggested, correctly, that the University of Virginia needs to reclaim its leadership position.

U-Va. is no longer a top-tier institution. It has many wonderful faculty and some impressive programs, but it does not have the total accumulation of excellence that characterizes the top ranks.

Importantly, neither the Princeton strategy nor NYU’s can get an institution anywhere if it does not have a solid intellectual core with the mechanisms and standards necessary for prioritizing intellectual accomplishment. As president, Sullivan’s signal contribution has been to work hard and fast to rebuild those foundational components. The position of the chief academic officer, the provost, is fundamental to whether any research university tends appropriately to its own fundamentals: hard-headed decisions about where to allocate dollars for appointing faculty, rigorous vetting of new hires, tough standards for review and promotion. Sullivan rightly prioritized returning the provost role to center stage at U-Va.

The next questions, then, are whether U-Va. is preparing to use this core to make serious moves to rebuild its leadership position within higher education, and what are the issues on which we in higher ed collectively need leadership now?

Neither the Princetons nor the NYUs of this universe have yet mastered the hardest problem: the cost and price of higher education. Perhaps U-Va., with its renewed focus on strategy, can help us find the way.

In the past two weeks both Sullivan and Helen Dragas, the leader of U-Va.’s board, laid out strategic visions for the university. Both identified as a current major initiative the Contemplative Sciences Center. Focused at first on yoga, the center’s purview has been expanded and its intellectual content deepened. But its inaugural programs, as described on its Web site, are a Visiting Yoga Instructors Series; a Contemplative in Residence; and Contemplative Science Research Funding. To my eye, this is not the kind of major initiative that will help U-Va. reclaim its position as a leader within higher education in this country or globally.

Two weeks ago the Board of Visitors needed a more profound understanding of just how important Sullivan’s work is toward rebuilding the core mechanisms of a high-functioning research university. One hopes the board members have learned that lesson. We can also hope that the board and university administration are ready to provide, together, serious and transformative answers as to what exactly U-Va. will do with its core mechanisms once Sullivan has rebuilt them.

On the issue of the cost and price of higher ed, we faculty still need leaders for our own sake. We do, in fact, need to be strategic thinkers.