Michael Bernard-Donals: University of Virginia’s Experience Resonates Here

English and Jewish Studies professor Michael Bernard-Donals offers his perspective on the University of Virginia crisis in the Sunday, June 8 Wisconsin State Journal. Bernard-Donals, a member of the University Committee, the PROFS Board of Directors, and the PROFS Steering Committee, argues that the events in Virginia should matter to the citizens of Wisconsin and highlight a growing national crisis in public higher education. The entire column is reprinted here with Bernard-Donal’s permission.

The University of Virginia’s board recently pressured the university’s president, Teresa Sullivan, to step down because it didn’t think she was making changes quickly enough. After an outcry from faculty, students and citizens of the state, the board backed down and reinstated Sullivan.

I’d argue that what happened in Virginia should matter deeply to us here in Wisconsin because it highlights the crisis in public higher education both locally and across the country.

The actions of Virginia’s board were an attempt to mandate change from the top and to run the university on a business management model. In this model, what matters is the bottom line, efficiency and return on investment.

But universities aren’t businesses. They don’t make things, they create well-educated citizens. It’s time-consuming, demanding, face-to-face work that involves years of trial-and-error labor on the part of students and teachers alike. Success isn’t measured by dividends or surpluses, it comes in the form of workers, voters, consumers, informed members of your community, responsible participants in the civic fabric of Wisconsin.

Putting people in charge of the university who measure success by the bottom line completely misses the point of what a public university education is all about.

The hand-wringing at Virginia, having to do with educational innovation and online classes, was a symptom of bottom-line thinking. The board wanted Virginia to jump on the distance-education bandwagon because it thought it was missing out on a low-cost, high-volume alternative to higher education.

But they weren’t interested in hearing from Sullivan or the faculty who have been working on models of distance education and hybrid classrooms for years, people who understand how learning works and whose knowledge of the subjects they teach should be at the heart of any course.

Rushing to online formats might be cheap, but doing it in a way that bypasses the people who know both the material and the technology gives you the distance part of “distance education,” but not the “education” part.

The heart of the argument in Virginia was about money. The Virginia board panicked because as the cost of education was going up, funding from the state was going down, and they wanted to do something to turn things around. But this isn’t a problem that can be solved by changing a president’s management style. The problem is that while state legislatures say they want innovative, exceptional state universities accessible to all the citizens of their states, they drastically cut higher education funding.

To make matters worse, at the same time they cut funding, they complain when the university increases tuition to make up for part of the cuts. There’s a certain hypocrisy to all of this. Legislators say, “we want you to keep our university great, but we’re going to cut your funding, and we’re going to call you the bad guy when you try to make up the difference.”

This is a shift of the burden for higher education from the public to the students, and it’s the legislators who are doing the shifting.

The events at the University of Virginia last week shine a light onto the crisis of public higher education in Wisconsin and across the United States. A public university’s job is to open its doors to the state’s young people and provide an excellent education, and in so doing to turn those young people into responsible, productive and informed citizens.

But it requires collaboration between a university’s faculty and staff, its administration, its board and its state legislature. You can’t do it with top-down management, and you can’t do it without the financial support of the state.

Well, you can — but then it’s not public higher education any more. It’s private higher education