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The University of Virginia Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

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Everyone, it seems, is now interested in the politics of higher education -- a topic that used to be downright obscure.

This suggests to me that there is a crisis brewing.

The clearest piece of evidence is the surprising amount of press that Teresa Sullivan's resignation/interregnum/reinstatement has gotten during the Sixteen Days That Shook the World. A Google search today (6/29) on "Teresa Sullivan Helen Dragas" resulted in over 60,000 hits. I would venture a guess that such a search pre-June 10 would have produced a handful.

Another indicator is to check out the chatter on the Internet.

One example: Though the quality of commentary by the laity as always varies, the cogent and coherent (for the most part) nearly 6,000 comments appended to the excellent piece by Huffington Post writers Jason Linkins and Zach Carter, "UVA Teresa Sullivan Ouster Reveals Corporate Control Of Public Education" reveal a remarkable intensity and sophistication.

Six thousand comments on a story about a University president resigning? Unprecedented, I think ... and we're not even entering into the evidence the extraordinary movement by UVA folks that precipitated the Board's retreat from the original constructive termination.

The heavy mainstream and social media play for the drama indicates that there's more going on than a singular intriguing story of huggermugger in the academy. There is, in fact, an ongoing, sizeable and growing interest in the politics and economy of the higher education industry as it maneuvers the vortices of 21st century change.

I am, it's true, a player in a sector of higher education far removed from the Sullivans and Dragas' and Research I Universities (I know, I know: we don't use that category anymore but it still seems of symbolic value). But I feel their pain and empathize with a feeling of their whirlwind of sturm und drang. Indeed, while the issues faced by the large public universities differ from those of the small private ones, there are essential questions that cross categories, and the brouhaha at UVA had them all.

The most fundamental questions revolve around Boards (whether they are called Regents or Trustees or Visitors, small or large, appointed or elected) and their purview, scope and boundaries.

With the multiple serious challenges facing post-secondary institutions, the capability of their volunteer Boards to cope intelligently, directly and thoroughly with the institutional issues and the environmental realities surrounding them is uncertain. While some of us are fortunate to have in place solid and capable individuals as members of a generally well-qualified collectivity (as I am now), nevertheless the amount of time, expertise, consideration, and creativity necessary to keep our small institutions of higher education sustainable strains the processes of the best, most functional Boards. And you would be correct to shudder to think of what becomes of the institutions (and their unfortunate CEOs) governed by the least proficient, dysfunctional Boards.

Perhaps even of greater concern is the breakdown of the covenant between Boards and their institutions. By that I mean the erosion of recognition that universities and colleges, with their bizarre rituals (as viewed by the "business people" populating the Boards) such as shared governance, were nevertheless solid enterprises. There are in addition the challenging and potentially devastating realities of the changed world of the last decade: for-profit universities, on-line education, worries about student debt, and so on. These pressures are eroding the possibilities for a President to coach all parties on divergent truths and instill among all parties respectful understanding of both cultures: academe and the Board.

As a President, I've always considered it my responsibility to be bicultural and to serve as the guide within the territory between Boards and their organizations. Recently that's proving more difficult as both cultures feel increasingly suspicious of one another and besieged by events and social realities. Colleagues tell me they share this new existence; we aren't happy about it.

I don't know President Sullivan personally but I have been thinking a lot about her these couple of weeks. As I did, I kept thinking of Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film Spartacus. You remember the scene: the defeated army of slaves is awaiting their fate and they hear:

"I bring a message from your master... Marcus Licinius Crassus ... commander of ltaly.

"By command of His Most Merciful Excellency ... your lives are to be spared.

"Slaves you were ... and slaves you remain.

"But the terrible penalty of crucifixion ... has been set aside ... on the single condition that you identify the body ... or the living person of the slave called Spartacus."

To which they respond:

"I'm Spartacus!"

"I'm Spartacus!"

[and so on ad infinitum]

In my fantasy, my brother and sister presidents are there with Teresa "Spartacus" Sullivan, and we all say, to the Board, "I'm Spartacus!" Of course, in Kubrick's film, their act of solidarity leads to their wholesale extermination.

But this time around Spartacus won. And that does feel good.

Mark Schulman, PhD, currently serves as president of Saybrook University, a premier graduate institution for humanistic studies in psychology, mind-body medicine, organizational systems, leadership, and human science. He is the former president of Goddard College (Vermont), and president and professor of humanities at Antioch University Southern California, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. He has published extensively on progressive and emancipator education, distance learning, technology and culture.