There’s something rotten on campus. In recent months, presidents have been fired, resigned, and re-hired in a surreal combination of dodge ball and musical chairs, in which some are clearly guilty of negligence and others seem merely to be pawns in a much larger financial game. Here are just some of the stories:
- Florida A&M University President James H. Ammon resigned on July 16, the same day that the parents of student Robert Champion filed a lawsuit against the school for its responsibility in the death of their son Robert, a drum major for the university’s marching band. The persistence of hazing problems had already led the university’s Dean of Students and Police Chief to request that the marching band be suspended. No steps were taken to address the problem, and a few days later Champion was killed in a hazing incident on a chartered bus. On that same bus that day, band member, Requesta Hardin was also so severely beaten by her band mates that she could not perform. As a result of the murder, the university’s Board of Trustees reprimanded Ammon in December and last month voted no confidence in his leadership. He was never fired.
- Mountain State University fired Charles H. Polk from his position as president in January. Polk was one of the highest paid private college administrators in the nation, earning a base salary of nearly $400,000 a year and 1.84 million in 2009 alone, despite the fact that the nursing program at the school lost its accreditation from the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission in October 2010 and was denied accreditation by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education in 2011. In June, the university was informed that it would lose its accreditation from the Higher Education Commission in August, for failure to address persistent problems, including high debt, inconsistent educational quality, and insufficient resources to provide its services. Polk’s salary, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, amounted to 3.4% of the college’s annual budget. The school will maintain its accreditation during the appeal process, but has suspended enrollment.
- University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan was fired and then re-hired two weeks later this June, in what the Washington Post has called a “public relations debacle.” Sullivan’s initial firing was conducted outside of the usual process, and no specific reason was ever provided for the dramatic and sudden action. Instead, it seems to have stemmed from a coup led by a member of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors, who were persuaded by business tycoon Peter Kiernan that the relatively new president was not employing enough “strategic dynamism” (a corporate concept) and led to oust the president by Board member Helen Vargas. Following a torrent of protest from students and faculty, the Board re-hired Sullivan a mere two weeks later.
Who is to Blame?
The issues of negligence and possible malfeasance that emerge in some of these stories are very serious: When university administrators make decisions-or fail to do so, in the case of Florida A & M’s negligence regarding the band’s infamous reputation for hazing-they must remember that they hold people’s lives in their hands. This creates a hothouse atmosphere in which university administration must function, where their every act should be scrutinized.
Unfortunately, that kind of scrutiny seems to be missing in some places and misplaced in others. Sadly, the FAMU tragedy is not the only such clear violation of negligence we’ve witnessed in the past year: According to the Freeh report on the investigation into Sandusky’s behavior, Penn State officials clearly neglected their professional, not to mention moral, responsibilities when they turned a blind eye to information about the repeated acts of sexual molestation by Jerry Sandusky. They did this, it seems, to safeguard the reputation of Penn State’s revered football team. No one stepped up to place Sandusky’s behavior in the more appropriate context, which is the damage that was done to the young boys he tormented and violated, and put more value on the victims than on the school’s extracurricular athletic activities.
It’s easy to see where the problem is in these cases, and to appropriately condemn university presidents. But people need to be looking in the right place. At Penn State, those in power chose to look elsewhere. However, some cases are more confusing and point to a larger problem plaguing the administration of American higher education. It seems that the current zeal to reform higher education has taken only one form, and that is the assumed cure-all that corporate solutions can provide to struggling schools. The privatization and corporatization of education is currently in vogue, but the saga of the University of Virginia should remind us that such practices may not, in fact, be the best for education. If that is the only solution administrators can see, then they are as blind as those administrators at Penn State.
Too Much Corporate Influence?
This analysis is clearly articulated by UVA professor of media studies and law Siva Vaidhyanathan. In an article on Slate.com, Professor Vaidhyanathan decried the heavy influence of business leaders with little academic experience on university decisions. He wrote, “At some point in recent American history, we started assuming that if people are rich enough, they must be experts in all things. That’s why we trust Mark Zuckerberg to save Newark schools and Bill Gates to rid the world of malaria. Expertise is so 20th century.” He pointed out that the decision to employ the same strategies used in corporate America is doomed to fail because universities do not have the same structure as businesses:
“To execute anything like strategic dynamism, one must be able to order people to do things, make quick decisions from the top down, and have a constant view of a wide array of variables. It helps if you understand what counts as an input and an output. Universities have multiple inputs and uncountable and unpredictable outputs.”
Why, then, do universities continue to follow the lead of corporate business magnates? Vaidhyanathan puts on the page what so many think but are afraid to say:
“The reason folks such as Dragas and Kiernan get to call the shots at major universities is that they write huge, tax-deductable checks to them. They buy influence and we subsidize their purchases. So too often an institution that is supposed to set its priorities based on the needs of a state or the needs of the planet instead alters its profile and curriculum to reflect the whims of the wealthy. Fortunately this does not happen often, and the vast majority of donors simply want to give back to the institutions that gave them so much. They ask nothing in return and admire the work we do. But it happens often enough to significantly undermine any sense of democratic accountability for public institutions.”
If Vaidhyanathan is right- and I suspect he is in many instances- then higher education is in trouble for more reasons than declining graduation rates and the other problems currently in evidence. There’s a leadership problem at the top, especially among the governance boards that monitor presidents and university systems. What happened at Penn State is just as much the fault of the administrators who were too worried about their big money football program to do the right thing than it was a result of the horrific crimes of one disturbed individual. We cannot afford this leadership problem right now, when funding for higher education is under severe attack, support is dwindling, and public criticism is at an all-time high.
Rather, college and university presidents need to be role models for higher education, standard-bearers of their institutions who can defend and represent the validity of all aspects of higher education. It’s time they and the university governance systems get their acts together and fight more valiantly against the critics and reformers who often have a catastrophic influence on a school. They need to find ways to balance input from all over to create flourishing, safe, and productive schools.
To do this, college presidents must have the appropriate support of students, faculty, and board members-but not the kind of misplaced support given to the bad actors at Penn State, such as Coach Joe Paterno, for whom the students rallied for days, in blatant denial of Paterno’s dereliction of duty as an educator and youth leader. Instead, college presidents need appropriate support, such as that given to Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia. Only then will higher education once again earn the respect it deserves.