(This item has been updated.)

Here’s the cool thing about covering higher ed from the nation’s capital: University leaders from around the country converge here to plan strategy and talk with lawmakers and federal officials.

And often they drop by The Post.

On Tuesday, we had a delegation from the Association of American Universities, which is an invitation-only group of 61 top research institutions. They were: Gene D. Block, chancellor of UCLA; Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University; Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan; Scott S. Cowen, president of Tulane University; and Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of AAU.

Conversation bounced from the possibility of federal “sequestration” budget cuts — which has potentially “catastrophic” consequences for research funding, Daniels said — to the emergence of massive, open online courses, or MOOCs. Coleman said Michigan, a participant in the free online education platform Coursera, doesn’t intend to dilute its brand but does hope the experiment will lead to improved teaching and learning. We also talked about affirmative action, financial aid, student debt and economic development.

But most striking was discussion of the leadership crisis at the University of Virginia (a member of AAU). The crisis subsided about four months ago with the reinstatement of U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan but continues very much to be a matter of debate. (See this report from my colleague Jenna Johnson about how the university’s accreditation is now under review because of the episode.)

Rawlings told us that the attempt to oust Sullivan, engineered by leaders of the school’s Board of Visitors, represented “the most egregious board decision I’ve ever seen.” He said the decision to move against Sullivan was “precipitous and opaque.” And he voiced concern that what happened in Charlottesville is part of wider phenomenon — that public higher education is under fire in many states, with leadership of premier institutions in deep flux because of fiscal and political pressures.

Afterward, AAU sent us a copy of a speech that Rawlings gave to the U-Va. faculty Oct. 15.

I have e-mailed U-Va. Rector Helen Dragas, who led the effort to oust Sullivan and then supported the reinstatement, to ask for comment on the Rawlings speech. She replied via e-mail that she is traveling but will consider my request for comment when she has time. If I hear more from her, I’ll post it here.

Update: Here’s an e-mail statement I just received from Dragas:

Dr. Rawlings’s recent remarks at the University of Virginia reflect many of the competing tensions and strains in public higher education generally and also at U.Va. They are a fact of life in a world of rapid change, and universities have to adapt to new realities.  They are also a legitimate concern of students, parents, taxpayers and the citizens of the Commonwealth.  I could not agree more, as Dr. Rawlings said, that public universities — even the very best — are “persistently short of public funds and increasingly short of public trust.”

I also agree that Mr. Jefferson’s University must continue to be a public good, a singular asset for Virginia.  But we can’t exist in a vacuum and look only to the past for guidance and direction.  My message was, and continues to be, one of planning, accountability and outcomes.  That means we first have to know where we are going and how we can support our journey.   The decisions we make must make sense to parents, students, legislators, taxpayers, donors, and research funders, as well as to faculty and administrators.  We are asking our supporters to invest in our mission and we have to be able to demonstrate the value of our stewardship, both in the near term and for the long term.  I don’t see that as “corporatization,” I see it as a reality and an obligation of the University.  Only by achieving financial sustainability and staying current with the needs of students, will we be able to sustain quality and honor our liberal arts heritage in the context of the 21st century.

What follows is the full text from Rawlings that we were sent:

“The Plight of the Public University in the Age of Accountability ... and What Can Be Done About It”

Speech to the University of Virginia Faculty

by Hunter R. Rawlings

President, Association of American Universities

October 15, 2012

I am a Virginian, and have taught in the Classics Department here twice, so I am particularly grateful to be invited to address a faculty that I strongly respect, and a university that I admire, from its Jeffersonian inspiration to its current president, whom I know well and value highly.

I have been asked to talk about a subject most of you know better than I, and to put it into a national context. I will do my best, and I look forward particularly to engaging in a colloquy with you following my remarks.

The events of last summer here in Charlottesville were unprecedented and shocking, but unfortunately fall into a pattern that we are seeing across the U.S. Since I was named to my position at AAU 18 months ago, 13 presidents of AAU public universities (out of 34) have left office, most of them prematurely, some forced out, some having resigned early. These are leaders of public flagships, among our best research universities, and their loss signals greater instability than I have ever seen before in American higher education.

Among these 13 cases, yours stands out as the most abrupt and the most opaque, and the only one with presidential reinstatement at its conclusion. Those features, added to UVA’s strong national reputation, explain why the upheaval here has attracted so much national attention even at a time of broader turmoil in the leadership of our public universities. Yours is, to engage in extreme understatement, a strange and unsettling case.

So my task is to portray the national landscape, but also to try to understand what is unique about the events here. I want to emphasize, however, right at the outset, that this is not simply a story of presidential turnover. Instability in the president’s office is symptomatic of a profound disruption in public research universities that threatens to weaken American education for decades to come, to lower our quality of life, and to harm our national competitiveness. The University of California, the world’s greatest system of public higher education, confronts the most serious threats to quality in its history, and many other publics find themselves in similar circumstances.

I see five principal causes of presidential turnover among our public universities.

1. Financial pressures. State budgets are in trouble, states have been disinvesting in higher education; last year 46 states cut higher education funding, many for the fourth or fifth year in a row.

2. Ideological pressures. There are state leaders who do not believe in public support of higher education, and who do not understand what an education at a research university means. Examples include Texas (Gov. Rick Perry vs. UT Austin), Arizona, Florida, and Pennsylvania.

3. “Corporatization” of the university. The governing board or the university administration insists on a new financial model, new sources of revenue, and on “running the operation like a business.” Consequently, this privileges academic programs that appear to pay for themselves. Examples are UVA and Colorado.

4. Competition between state higher education systems and the flagships. Examples are Wisconsin, Illinois, and Oregon.

5. Intercollegiate athletics. These are Penn State and UNC Chapel Hill.

I will come back to these five causes in evaluating the UVA case, but I should say now that it seems likely that causes #4 and #5 do not obtain in Virginia. Causes #1 and #3 certainly do. Cause #2 I cannot assess.

On the national level, I conclude that the old public compact we had in this country is now close to broken: when I was a kid growing up in the 1950’s, higher education was a democratic value, a public good. We went to college to become “educated,” which meant broadly educated in history, literature, math, science, and the liberal arts. Higher education for us had two chief purposes: to become contributing citizens in a democracy and to prepare for a lifetime of personal learning and appreciation of culture (Western culture only, of course, in those days). A better job would almost inevitably follow, based on having a degree, but college, except in certain instances, was not designed to prepare us for specific jobs, and we did not expect it to do so.

Today, much of America sees higher education as a utilitarian necessity: its sole purpose is to prepare students to get a job. The university therefore occupies the place of the old high school. Higher education has, as a result, become a private interest, not a public good, and it should be paid for by students and their parents, or “consumers” in corporate parlance. As a consequence, while 25 years ago the state paid two-thirds of the cost of attending a public university and the student paid one-third, today those ratios are reversed, and the process is accelerating. In 10 states, per-student support fell at least 30 percent from 2002 to 2010, according to a new study by the National Science Board.

The faculty, according to this view, has one main purpose: to teach students stuff that will enable them to get a job (any job). Research is of secondary significance, and its chief purpose is to spawn technology transfer that will lead to jobs and economic development in the states. Again, we are talking about an instrumentalist view of the university that promotes applied research, practical applications, direct ties to business and industry, and the opening up and cultivation of new sources of revenue.

I note here, not quite as an aside, that just as we are moving in this direction, China and Singapore, to take two examples, one large and one small, are beginning to emulate our former model. That model defined the education of citizens as a good in itself, one that promoted the liberal arts and critical thinking as beneficial to society and to the individual, and one that regarded rigorous scholarship and curiosity-based research as ends, not means. Yale’s budding liberal arts college in Singapore marks a striking new departure for that corporate-like city-state, and very possibly a model for other Asian countries. China’s new emphasis upon education in the humanities and encouragement of more original thinking among its students trends in the same direction. The same trend can be seen in the creation of NYU’s new Shanghai campus, which features a liberal arts curriculum, with special emphasis upon subjects such as the arts, urban and environmental studies, and media and communications.

But to return to the U.S. We are seeing now an acceleration in this decades-long trend towards utilitarianism in higher education, clearly hastened by the deep recession of the past four years. Financial exigency afflicts most state budgets, which are burdened by the rising costs of Medicaid, prisons, and other required expenditures. State legislators and governors believe that universities can make up for reductions in general fund support by various means, including increased tuition and the creation of new revenue streams not available to prisons and other state institutions. Furthermore, research universities can generate new businesses, hence new jobs, by pursuing technology transfer from laboratories to research parks and local corporations.

Meanwhile, many Americans are out of work. Students are understandably concerned about finding jobs. With families bearing the brunt of education costs, it is not surprising that they are anxious to see their children’s education “pay off” with employment immediately after graduation. All these economic pressures are pushing society to see the university as a potential solution to practical problems, and in fact, universities can serve that role, and often do. But, and this is crucial, it is a secondary role of universities, subservient to their primary role as educators, and as discoverers and transmitters of knowledge. To treat economic development and job-training as a research university’s primary mission is, I think, a perversion of its mission in society, a categorical mistake of the first order.

Texas is now ground zero in this crisis (and I use the word advisedly) afflicting public higher education in the U.S. Governor Rick Perry has, with the help of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, launched an assault on Texas A & M and the University of Texas, Austin: he wants an undergraduate degree to cost $10,000, and no more; he wants graduates ready-made for jobs; he wants faculty members evaluated on the basis of how much money they bring in and how many students they teach. This is essentially to treat research universities as vocational schools, diploma mills, and grant-getters. There are now disturbing signs that other governors, starting with Rick Scott of Florida, are using Texas as a model for how to solve their higher education dilemma.

I believe that the picture I have drawn of the current state of public higher education is accurate, and I fear its consequences. But I want to point out a few things on the other side of the ledger that qualify my findings, and force a balanced consideration of where we are.

1. Tuition has been going up pretty fast, at least the sticker price has, even if real net costs have been holding steady or slightly declining for the past five years because of increased financial aid. This rise in sticker price adds to the perception of high costs among all potential students, and in the public at large. We can explain this problem, and the reasons for it, all we want, but after a certain point, the public stops listening. We are near that point.

2. Undergraduate education at many large universities has suffered from poorly taught classes, low standards, and incoherence in the curriculum (for which we faculty members have been largely responsible). At some public flagships, students have difficulty getting the courses they need to graduate on time, the majors they want, and access to the professors they need to consult. There is some evidence, so far limited and unscientific, but suggestive, that students at large universities are not learning as much as they should, and are not engaged meaningfully in their education.

3. Universities are in fact now large, corporate-like institutions with far-flung, diverse “businesses,” for example, hospitals and huge entertainment divisions called intercollegiate athletics, auxiliary enterprises such as apparel stores, and tech transfer operations that spawn new patents and licenses and require teams of lawyers and accountants to keep up with them. Much of this side of the university is completely out of the hands of the faculty, or only partially under its purview. As a result, “shared governance” has limited application and value in these domains, and some of our academic structures and traditional practices appear antiquated and inadequate in this environment. It is unfortunately true that some aspects of these businesses create clear conflicts of interest with core academic values of the university.

Let’s be candid: for the past couple of decades, American universities have been developing into multifaceted, global enterprises operated by boards of trustees and administrations trying to cope with and take advantage of rapid changes and opportunities on a grand scale. We have been forced to hire armies of accountants and compliance officers to keep up with federal research regulations, NCAA rules, overseas operations, and endowment instruments and restrictions, while holding faculty positions and salaries in close check, particularly in colleges of arts and sciences that have difficulty raising philanthropic support on the scale of professional schools. The stakes are now high because we are constantly exposed to public scrutiny in the form of federal and state audits, open records laws, superficial, but widely publicized magazine rankings, and oversight by political and business leaders who seem to have little appreciation of the goals and standards of a nonprofit, knowledge-driven institution. And woe to those universities that fail to oversee their “subsidiary businesses” rigorously: the cases of Penn State and Chapel Hill are, unfortunately, there for all the world to see.

All this is enough to make an aging classicist shudder. Gone are the days when the university could be described as an ivory tower or academic village; it is now a cosmopolis, one persistently short of public funds for our core needs and increasingly short of public trust in our culture and values. We have, for the most part, brought ourselves to this position, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, but the movement seems to have been inexorable and increasingly rapid in the past couple of decades, fueled by the quest for funds, for prestige, and for competitive advantage.

After this too-brief survey of the national picture, how should we assess the recent events at the University of Virginia? First, as I mentioned earlier, I consider causes #1 and #3 to have been operating in the Board of Visitors’ initial decision to end President Sullivan’s tenure, at least insofar as one can glean anything from Board statements last summer. Money was at the center of this maelstrom, whether one examines the role of the rector, the executive vice president and chief operating officer, the chair of the Darden School Foundation Board, or several prominent donors. Hence, references to budget challenges, uncompetitive salaries, new revenue streams, the potential of online education, and the like.

But the UVA case additionally featured language that I put under category #3, “corporatization.” Phrases such as “faster pace of change,” “change agents,” “bold leadership,” “strategic dynamism,” “transformative technologies,” “the need to shut down programs that cannot sustain themselves financially,” (my own “obscure” discipline apparently came to someone’s mind) are the only clues to Board members’ thinking so far made public. This is corporate thinking, pure and simple, and it seems to have been applied hastily, secretly, and superficially to the single most important decision an academic governing board, or, for that matter, any governing board can make: hiring or firing a president. We academics find this sort of language distasteful, at least I do, because it belongs to for-profit business, to Wall Street, the world of the bottom line and the quarterly report. That world prizes short-term thinking and achievement of results designed to impress investors and analysts, not the kind of open-minded, disinterested thinking universities require if they are to succeed in their twin missions of teaching students and carrying out the curiosity-driven research that no other entity in our country conducts any longer. So, even if universities are virtual holding companies now for diverse enterprises, we have core missions and essential values that should not be profaned or enervated by justifications for removing a president that use the language of for-profit industry.

But I do not want to dwell on that decision, nor on the individuals who made it. I want to focus upon what the faculty should do now. To begin, I congratulate you on the role you played last summer: it was honest, closely engaged, thoughtful, concerted, constructive, and ultimately effective. It was also novel: so far as I know, neither this faculty nor any other at an AAU university has in recent memory effected so immediate and momentous a reversal of a governing board’s decision. You did not accomplish this feat by yourself, but you played a lead role.

My advice, therefore, is that you stay engaged with the administration and the Board, and that you treat this engagement as part of your normal work as faculty members. I know it is burdensome, given your full responsibilities in teaching, research, and public service, but it is essential that the faculty voice be an integral part of the university’s decision-making, especially with so much at stake in those decisions. In order to be effective, it is also essential that you familiarize yourselves with the challenges confronting UVA, appreciate the stresses, financial and competitive, it faces, get to know Board members personally, and recognize the problems they encounter in governing the university in this era of rapid and daunting change.

Given my postulate that finance and corporatization lie behind the events of last summer, it is also crucial to meet those matters head-on, rather than simply lament them. Yes, UVA, like every other major public research university, is short of funds for its academic aspirations and has a board with corporate leadership and predilections. UVA also has multiple corporate-like operations, countless business decisions to make, risks to manage, and the need to raise philanthropic support from wealthy and “corporate” alumni who want to see their donations used intelligently and proactively. The trick, and it is a hard trick, is to balance such management with sound understanding of academic values such that educational and research priorities remain paramount. You have a very good president and a very good provost. I know them both, and respect them highly. If the faculty collaborates closely with them in enunciating the core values of Mr. Jefferson’s university, you can have a powerful influence on its future direction.

Let me say something now about two specific domains central to public university problems today, both of which seem to have been involved in your crisis last summer. The first is online learning. As I see it, research universities are still in the experimental stage, and thus far, it has been a lengthy experiment with no clear outcomes. The initial step was taken back in the earliest years of this millennium, during the dot-com craze, when a number of leading universities created online programs, most of which, such as Columbia’s Fathom, died in short order despite large investments in them. Cornell has actually continued throughout this entire period, offering courses and certificates particularly in professional fields such as business and human resources. But the program has been scaled back from its initial level and experience has demonstrated the wisdom of smaller, master’s level courses aimed at employees of companies that will cover tuition for continuing education.

Step two came recently with the success of Stanford’s MOOC’s, or massive open online courses that, astonishingly, reached tens of thousands of “students” ( I use the word loosely) around the world and carried Stanford’s “brand” with them. Now we see the birth of edX, Harvard’s, MIT’s and Berkeley’s new venture, and the expansion of Coursera, which encompasses some 33 universities, including this one. These ventures are still in the start-up phase, it seems to me, and do not yet have business plans, at least the kind that show any capacity for making money or even breaking even. Furthermore, they do not envision offering academic credit, much less degrees. But that is fine for now because universities should be experimenting with this model in order to develop it into a pedagogical tool that will improve education on campus as well as offer learning to students at remote sites.

I am not one of those who think that online learning will soon transform higher education, make obsolete residential campuses like this one, massively disrupt our business model, and provide huge new sources of revenue to hard-pressed universities. Most of what we are discovering about student learning actually runs strongly counter to remote teaching: students are motivated to learn by engagement in their education, the more direct and personal the better. In fact, all recent research on STEM education demonstrates convincingly that active learning is vastly preferable to the passive listening to lectures that has characterized many science courses, particularly at the first- and second-year levels. So there is a certain irony in the current craze for online learning, much of it based on superficial excitement over new technologies and wishful thinking about big new revenue streams. But I do believe that online learning is here to stay, even, or particularly, at top research universities. Further experimentation will reveal its best uses, some of them on our own residential campuses, and its most efficient economic model. In the meantime, we should take a deep breath and do what universities do best: conduct honest experiments, invest wisely, and let research results teach us where to go.

The second domain I want to address is much more significant: UVA’s relationship with the Commonwealth of Virginia, in terms of state funding, tuition, and the support and conduct of undergraduate education. This issue is central to the difficult dynamics playing out in every state in the country, and the stakes are extremely high: who should pay for higher education, and what is the mission and identity of public universities? I hear a lot of talk as I visit campuses around the country about how small a percentage of university budgets (single digits in some cases) now comes from the state general fund, and how these institutions are becoming more and more “private.” In many of these accounts speakers seem to take a perverse pride in the fact that the state provides so small a portion of the university’s support. There is almost a competition among universities to see who can claim the smallest percentage, and we now hear sarcastic phrases such as “publicly located” and “publicly hampered” to describe public universities.

I find this kind of thinking ill-conceived and dangerous: there is no possibility, as far as I can see, that any state will ever relinquish its ownership and governance of its public universities, much less of its flagship research university, no matter how minute its financial support becomes. Furthermore, we should not be computing the ratio of state support to the total university budget, including all its auxiliary enterprises, but the ratio of state support to the cost of educating students, particularly undergraduates. That is the state’s primary responsibility, in my view, not paying for athletic programs, most research, apparel shops and such entities that support themselves through fees, grants and commercial sales. The real question is, what value does the state place on educating citizens?

We must recognize that the more universities divorce themselves from the state financially, intellectually, and culturally, the more they precipitate the malign trend towards the privatization and instrumentalization of education in this country. Thomas Jefferson created a vision of public higher education as an indispensable component of democracy. He was right to do so, and now that practically everyone needs a college education to be a contributing citizen, it is more important than ever. As many governors and legislators make the case that higher education is not a public good, but a private interest, we aid and abet that argument by using the language of privatization ourselves.

I think we should be making the most cogent case possible for our public universities to be truly public. Perhaps professional schools, in setting tuition, should avail themselves of the opportunity to use the competitive market to their benefit, as they have done here to particular advantage. But colleges of arts and sciences, the center of the university and of democratic education, should be supported by the state to the maximum degree. Here is the heart of the matter that, in my view, the faculty, the administration, and the governing board should address in concert, and with rigor and vigor, if we are going to preserve public education as a force in American democracy. Our public schools have deteriorated to second- or third-rate status globally. Before our public universities suffer the same fate, and they are now on the road to it, we need aggressive advocacy by everyone on campus to tell state leaders that it is time to make the College of Arts and Sciences the highest possible priority for public funding. This is where future leaders and citizens are shaped, this is where critical thinking is promoted, this is where minds are expanded. But this is where, in an era of burgeoning athletic programs and megagifts to athletic emporia, we see constant belt-tightening, zero faculty raises, and continuous loss of morale.

This problem persists across the country. Because these colleges teach the liberal arts, and pursue scholarship and research for the sake of discovery, wherever it leads, and because to those too short-sighted to understand, they do not appear “useful” to the economy, they have borne the brunt of the repeated budget cuts of the past five or more years. It is time for governing boards, presidents, provosts, and faculty to reverse this decline by redirecting resources to these colleges within the university, and by petitioning the state to pay its full share of educating its citizens, not by imposing tuition increases on students, but by providing better state general fund support.

We are witnessing the climactic stages, in Carol Schneider’s words, of an “assault upon the disciplines basic to democracy,” and an attempt to degrade our liberal arts programs into vocational schools. This assault is ideological, a concerted effort to eliminate programs that appear leftish or non-utilitarian. Specifically, it is an attack upon the humanities and the social sciences, and we see it at the federal as well as the state level. President Sullivan wrote last June, “A university that does not teach the full range of arts and sciences will no longer be a university.” I would add, it will also no longer exercise its proper function in a democracy, which is to enable students to hone their critical faculties to the point where they can distinguish between the truth and bunk, where they can originate and back up a case of their own, and where they can become skeptical of their preferences and prejudices, and learn to see the world from the perspective of individuals unlike themselves.

Our society is pushing towards the commodification of everything, including education. The new “Virginia Longitudinal Data System,” required by passage this year of House Bill 639, exacerbates this trend by reporting data on how much graduates of the Commonwealth’s colleges and universities earn 18 months following completion of a degree or certificate. This is the most ambitious and pernicious instrument yet devised to make college education purely instrumentalist. It is a travesty and an abomination; and it has the effrontery to contain ludicrous language warning against misuse of its results, which will be rife. The idea that Virginia should measure how much college graduates, by major, earn 18 months after completion is inimical to democratic values, another example of crass, short-term, reductionist thinking at its worst.

It is time, in James Madison’s words, to issue a “Memorial and Remonstrance” against this kind of ideology. In his original “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” Madison protested Patrick Henry’s attempt to legislate a mandatory tax on Virginians to support churches. In the course of that remonstrance, which is the most authoritatively cited American document on freedom of conscience and separation of church and state, Madison states why he opposes Henry’s bill:

“Because the Bill implies either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent Judge of Religious Truth; or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages, and throughout the world: the second an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.”

We need language like this today to oppose the use of instruments to measure the short-term economic value of an education, and the attempt to degrade the value of secular learning in the liberal arts. Classics majors like me, despaired of by our uncles as hopelessly unable to find a job or to earn a living, turned out in a long career to make a fair amount of money doing things both unplanned for and only indirectly related to our training. But that says very little about the full and salient value of a major in the Classics, which prepares its practitioners for a lifetime of learning, of critical thinking, of public service, and of intellectual and cultural pleasure. Some modern day civil magistrates are not competent judges of a liberal arts education. And they clearly pervert the ideas and ideals of Mr. Jefferson in founding this university, while diminishing its ability financially to teach those ideas and ideals.

Do not waste last summer’s crisis at the University of Virginia. Use it to make your own memorial and remonstrance, an all-out effort by faculty, students, the administration, and the Board of Visitors to restore this university to its foundational principles.