A dramatic top-down reallocation in our general fund, simply to show that we are “changing,” or that we are not “incremental,” seems to me fiscally imprudent, highly alarming to faculty, and unfair to students who expect to get a broadly inclusive education here. I have chosen a lower-risk and more conservative strategy, because I am accountable to the taxpayers and the tuition payers.
If we were to embark on a course of deep top-down cuts, there would also be difficult questions regarding what to cut. A university that does not teach the full range of arts and sciences will no longer be a university. Certainly it will no longer be respected as such by its former peers.
Faculty collaborate both within disciplines and across disciplines. In the nature of things, many of these collaborations are not even known to the central administration. If we cut from the top down, without consulting the affected faculty, a cut in one department may have wholly unintended consequences in another department that we are trying to build up.
Nor can we always predict which kind of knowledge will be of greatest import in the future. Before September 11, few of us understood just how important Arabic and other Middle Eastern and Central Asian languages would become — to our students, to the nation, and to national security. Suppose we had eliminated some of those languages because of low enrollment or other fiscal considerations before 2001. We would be scrambling to recreate them now.
Former UVA President Teresa Sullivan. You should read Sullivan’s whole statement, because it demonstrates quite clearly her deep understanding of how universities work — or how they must work if they are actually going to be universities. It is obvious that she understands the fiscal challenges that every institution of higher education faces, but also that she believes it is possible for a university (especially one that aspires to greatness) to meet those challenges in a way that does not require missional self-evisceration.
I strongly suspect that this is one of those cases where clarity and directness of prose are indicative of incisive thinking and honesty. Contrast Sullivan’s statement to the cliché-laden, evasive, and intellectually and factually empty press release by the university’s rector, Helen Dragas. Read the two documents and, just as a little thought experiment, ask yourself: Which of these women would I want to lead a university I worked for?
UVA, where I got my PhD many years ago, has never received all that much money from me, but, unless I learn something that upends my understanding of the situation, it’s certainly not going to get any in more in the future. From the sound of things, Helen Dragas and her colleagues are just fine with that: it would appear that a university run on a big-business model, funded and controlled by big business, is just what they want. That would be the death-knell of the University of Virginia qua university — that is, an institution whose role is to conserve and transmit knowledge even when it doesn’t know exactly what use that knowledge will be put to tomorrow; but, to look on the bright side, some fortunate university with a more enlightened leadership is likely to get a really good president in Teresa Sullivan. UVA’s dark cloud will have a silver lining for someone else.