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Ethnocentrism, Virginia Style

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The recent firing of University of Virginia (UVA) President Teresa Sullivan is a classic case of what anthropologists call ethnocentrism. It is a clear example of how ethnocentric thinking produces devastating social, political and educational results.

Most anthropologists say that you are ethnocentric when you use your own set of rules, procedures and beliefs to make judgments about other people who don't share your view of the world. I tell my anthropology students that there are two kinds of ethnocentrism. The first kind, which I like to call "my way or the highway" ethnocentrism, is characterized like this:

I am more powerful than you. Therefore you have to do things my way.

The second kind, which I like to call "if only they'd leave me alone" ethnocentrism,
is characterized in this way:

I know you have more power (money, arms, influence) than I do. But I am morally superior to you, which means that I'll just have to learn to live with your incredibly stupid life ways.

The myopic ethnocentrism of the powerful has a long history of creating many social, economic and political problems. The most serious case of "my way or the highway" ethnocentrism may well be the Iraq War. Using fudged intelligence, the United States attacked Iraq to eliminate a cache non-existent weapons of mass destruction. They also waged war to bring democracy to the Middle East. In order to make democracy work in places like Iraq our officials extended free market theories to an economy based on a set a principles that put a premium upon ethnicity, clan membership, and the social rules that govern Islamic trade. The famous Neoconservatives of the Bush administration wanted to force feed the people of Iraq with American "know-how." That would whip the country into shape. Once the other countries in the region got wind of the "good news," they, too, would become democratic and the world would be a better place. From our vantage today, we know that this kind of "my way or the highway" ethnocentric thinking produced colossally tragic consequences. Thousands upon thousands of lives were lost and a country was ravaged. When the Iraq war ended officially on December 15, 2011, U.S. tax payers, according to the Wall Street Journal's Market Watch, "had shelled out an estimated $4 trillion -- an epic waste of national treasure inspired by ethnocentric thinking. Bent on bringing American democracy and American free-market practices to an oil-rich Muslim nation, our ignorant officials had little capacity and less volition to understand the social, economic and political dimensions of Iraqi society.

Somehow this kind of ethnocentric thinking as taken hold of contemporary public life in America. It infuses our political discourse and has even inserted itself into the governance of our most esteemed public universities. Fast forward to the debacle at the University of Virginia, one of the oldest and greatest of our public universities. Echoing the rhetoric of Mitt Romney, among others, that our public institutions should be run like a businesses, the UVA Board of Visitors seems to have fired Dr. Sullivan because she was too academic, which means that she supported faculty and students and did not conform to the model of a hard-driving CEO.

Helen Dragas, a UVA Board of Visitors member and a Virginia Beach real estate developer, was centrally involved in the Sullivan dismissal. After Sullivan's summary firing, she issued the following statement.

The Board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation. We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change. The world is simply moving too fast.

Put in a different language, Dragas is suggesting that if UVA is to survive in a climate of low taxes and limited government, it will have to adopt private sector ideas, practices and procedures. She is suggesting that because the Board knows what's good for UVA, the institution must adopt the Board's model -- "my way or the highway." What would Mr. Jefferson think?

In a piece published in the June 15 issue of Slate, UVA Media Studies Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote:

The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.

Universities do not have "business models." They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.

We are all ethnocentric, but if we become aware of our ethnocentrism, we can limit much of its damaging impact on our educational and governmental institutions.

If you run a university like a business, you ruin it.

If you run a society like a business, you damage the social contract.

Such are the very real dangers of ethnocentric thinking.