Siva Vaidhyanathan's article in Slate about the oust of UVA's president, Teresa Sullivan, is being widely circulated among my academic friends. Siva says that a wealthy donor was behind the firing. Siva and many of my friends are pissed that a wealthy outsider is calling the shots at their university.
Why was she fired? Sullivan was paid $680,000 per year. Although that is hardly the top of the ladder of college presidents, it's not too shabby. Still, her salary wasn't the cause of her departure. It seems that the governing board was annoyed with her for not making cuts in certain programs.
Faculty, like Siva and my friends, are upset that wealthy donors, rather than the faculty, are calling the shots at universities. With the cutbacks in state funds, schools are increasingly reliant on philanthropy to meet their bottom line. According to Bloomberg,
Public universities across the U.S. are adjusting to cuts in funds from taxpayers. The University of Virginia is expected to receive 5.8 percent of its revenue from state funds in the 2012-13 academic year, down from 26 percent in 1989-90, according to its website.
The university received $242.6 million in donations last year, according to its website.
I have mixed feeling about all this. On the one hand, universities do need some insularity from market pressures. Much of what universities does is not profitable. It's hard to explain to outsiders why kids need to learn about Homer and Sophocles.
On the other hand, universities could benefit from some checks and balances. If the public pays the tab (either with tuition or taxes), then they have a right to know what goes on in the Ivory Tower. They even have the right to a certain amount of control. Academics love internal democracy, but they hate external democracy.
This Sullivan incident is about more than just Sullivan. It's about control over the colleges. Who should run the show? Should the faculty make decisions about their schools or should outsiders – politicians, wealthy donors, voters – have a say?