While the United States of America reacts to last week's ruling by the Supreme Court on the constitutional question of President Obama's Affordable Health Care Act, there is an equally fundamental question for Americans to decide: How should public colleges and universities be governed?
For 16 days in June, the University of Virginia, my alma mata, was in the news following the unceremoniously ouster of its president, Teresa Sullivan. According to news accounts, some describing leaked private emails between members of the university's Board of Visitors, the Rector and Vice Rector, several board members secretly engineered the firing of Sullivan without taking a board vote. Under intense pressure from students, faculty and alumni, Sullivan was reinstated.
In terms of process and philosophy, the shenanigans of board leaders raises the broader question of how, and by whom, should state-funded public institutions of higher learning be governed. The no-vote, private process can be denounced without much discussion. The philosophy, upon which the decision was made compels a closer look.
Let's begin with the founders' intent for some of our nation's leading universities. Harvard University is named for a private citizen, John Harvard. Brown University was named for a private citizen, Nicholas Brown, Jr. Stanford University was named for a private citizen, Leland Stanford, to name a few. Therefore, we can reasonably understand the private focus of such elite institutions.
On the other hand, the University of Virginia, often referred to as a "Public Ivy" in academic circles, was not named for its founder, Thomas Jefferson, who had served as president of the United States and Secretary of State. Under him, the university's mission was for the public good through increasing citizens' educational enlightenment within the Commonwealth of Virginia. Of course, Jefferson spoke from both sides of his mouth by only including wealthy White males for university admission. Notwithstanding his hypocrisy, the University of Virginia was intended to be a public light for the path of ignorance.
So how could the Board of Visitors get it so wrong by acting in a destructively private way?
The answer may be found in who compose the boards of visitors at leading public universities. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, nearly 60 percent of such boards are composed of wealthy corporate executives. Not all, but many of these executives have absolute power within their respective corporations, and have a profit-driven philosophy in governance. Applied to the university setting, such executives tend to prioritize revenue, return on investment, and endowment over course offerings and preparation of scholars for the public good.
Their justification is the "cost" of higher education. However, there is a distinct difference between the cost of higher education and its "price." Because of the profit motive, the cost does not usually reflect the price charged for tuition. The predictable result is a decreased affordability for students of meager means, and a concentration of educational opportunity for the wealthy. Early reports in the University of Virginia drama suggested that the main reason for the board's action was President Sullivan's lack of "vision" and her refusal sufficient cuts.
Another argument proffered by private profiteers serving on university board of directors is the tragic truth that the federal government and many state legislatures are ever decreasing funding for public institutions. Schools such as the University of Wisconsin and the University of Oregon have seriously considered re-chartering themselves as private universities, thereby removing "burdensome" laws voted for by the public and their elected officials. In the case of University of Virginia, its endowment of nearly $5 billion has led board members down a road toward private university status and personal agendas.
Yet, despite the public spectacle performed by private-leaning profiteers on the board, a public good can arise from events at the University of Virginia. In order to begin the process of re-establishing the University's brand image as an academic leader a national conference should be convened on the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to explore the questions: 1) Who determines the governance of public universities (public leaders, private executives, or a blend of the two philosophies)? and 2) What are the future sources of funding for public universities?
As our nation competes with other industrialized nations for academic leadership, the cost of not having such a national conversation will too high to pay.
Gary L. Flowers is executive director and CEO of the Black Leadership Forrum.