UVa: the Unfolding Financial Crisis of Higher Education, Part n+1

June 29, 2012

Like many in higher education, I’ve been following the crisis at the University of Virginia, the surprise firing and subsequent rehiring of Teresa Sullivan, UVa’s president.  For the life of me, I have a hard time understanding why she’d accept being rehired.  How can she possibly work with the Board of Visitors (let alone some of her senior staff) unless she was assured that several people would hit the road instead of her.

I have no inside insight into this drama.  But I’m fascinated at the copmmentary about what it means.  The Chronicle of Higher Education rang a piece called “UVa May Need a Narcissist at the Top,” access to which is gated.  Written by Jack Stripling, it lays the blame on the doctrine of “strategic dynamism,” and its displacement of “shared governance” as a guiding idea for universities.

The phrase came into play from Peter Kiernan, an alumnus and (until he resigned, chairman of the UVa Darden School [of Business] Foundation Board.  Said the Chronicle piece: “The decision of the Board of Visitors to move in another direction stems from their concern that the governance of the university was not sufficiently tuned to the dramatic changes we all face: funding, Internet, technology advances, the new economic model,” Mr. Kiernan wrote in the e-mail, which was published in several Virginia newspapers. “These are matters for strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning.”

So what is “strategic dynamism?” Stripling turns to Donald Hambrick, a professor of management at Penn State:  “Quite the opposite of the methodical, long-term visions found in most universities’ strategic plans, strategic dynamism implies a near-constant ‘stirring of the pot’ within an organization, … That could mean wild changes in asset allocation within a company’s investment portfolio or a radical alteration of a business’s marketing approach. Proponents of strategic dynamism value the potential rewards of substantial, fast-paced change more than the stability of a gradual strategic evolution, Mr. Hambrick says.”

Stripling plays the UVa crisis as the ascendancy of a corporate style view of proper university governance, and portrays this as a struggle that has been going on for decades.

That may be.  College and university governance is quite different from corporate governance, and strategy-setting in both contexts has to observe appropriate good governance practices.  But Stripling (and many others), I think, misunderstands how much of what is happening at UVa arises from the collapsing financial model of U.S. colleges and universities.  The UVa Board of Visitors was acting out of fear, and its fears have real roots.  We simply do not know how colleges and universities will manage their finances in the future.

Ideas of strategic dynamism may be in play, but what put them in play was a collapsing financial base.  It isn’t just an old struggle renewed.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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