Virginia Politicians and the Slow Strangulation of Its Famous State University

Numerous American states, especially those with legislatures dominated by the Republican party, are causing havoc, and in some cases chaos, for their state universities.   Take the case of Virginia (where I happen to reside).

Helen Dragas, a property developer and alumna of the University of Virginia, is also a former member and rector of the UVA Board of Visitors (Virginia’s equivalent of the board of trustees).  She was appointed to the Board by Hillary Clinton’s neoliberal running mate, Tim Kaine, when he was governor of Virginia.  Dragas has embroiled UVA in two needless controversies which indicate clearly she has, among other things, little idea how a contemporary university functions.

In 2012, in her capacity as Rector of the Board of Visitors, Dragas orchestrated a coup which led to the resignation of the University president, Teresa Sullivan, on the grounds that Sullivan had mismanaged UVA’s finances by not imposing budgetary austerity and not investing in online courses.

MOOCs were the in-vogue bandwagon then, and online education was believed, mistakenly it turned out, to be a cheaper alternative to a traditional classroom-based curriculum.

Several Board members said they had not been consulted on Sullivan’s sacking (which is what it was), students and faculty fought back hard on behalf of the popular Sullivan, and the press started to delve into in the financial affairs of Board members– nearly all corporate fat cats like Dragas– most of whom, political donations and connections aside, seemed to have no evident qualification for the responsibility of overseeing the operations of a large modern university.

After 3 weeks of inconclusive toing and froing on Sullivan’s resignation, the then Republican governor Bob McDonnell, with his own corruption scandal looming on the horizon, said he would use his gubernatorial prerogative and replace the entire board if the matter was not resolved forthwith.

Sullivan was reinstated.  Dragas remained on the Board and was appointed by McDonnell for a second term, this fiasco notwithstanding.  Her reprieve was attributed to her high-level political connections.

Dragas recently finished her second term on the Board, and promptly embroiled her alma mater in another furore bysurinkfreedom writing an op-ed piece in the Washington Post describing UVA’s $2.3 billion strategic investment fund as a “slush fund”.

Dragas donates primarily to neoliberal Virginian Democrats such as Kaine and the state’s other US Senator, Mark Warner, but the Republican-controlled Virginia state legislature heard her dog whistle and promptly barked out calls for investigations and “forensic” audits of UVA’s finances.  This even though UVA, like all Virginia state universities, undergoes an annual audit conducted by the state auditor, and had been given a clean bill of health in the most recent one.

The politicians (there were a couple of Democrats among them) gave a populist twist to this manufactured hysteria over the strategic investment fund by saying the money in it should have been used instead to lower tuition costs– UVA’s tuition, like that in nearly American state university, has escalated in recent decades, and has risen by 4 times the rate of inflation since 1980.

Some of the reasoning provided by these Republicans was laughter-inducing.  Coming from small rural towns in the main, they said UVA’s multi-billion-dollar annual operating budget was vast compared to their small-town budgets of a few millions, and was therefore somehow indicative of “bloat”, etc.   “Our people make do with a few millions while UVA wallows in billions” was the kind of risible rhetoric used to justify these yelps for investigations and audits of UVA.

This line of argument is of course highly disingenuous.  Republican-dominated state legislatures since the time of Reagan have heeded his “low tax, low spend” mantra and, with the complicity of Democrats in many cases, have slashed higher-education budgets accordingly.

In 1980 the state contributed 35% of the budget of UVA’s academic division, today that figure is down to 9%.  In a word, UVA is virtually a private university, though this did not deter low-wattage state politicians in their grandstanding on the “slush fund” issue.

It is clear that tuition has risen precisely to meet the shortfall caused by the precipitous decline in the state’s financial provision.

It has however to be acknowledged that the decline in the state’s financial contribution to Virginian public universities was exacerbated by an entirely political decision underwritten by the universities themselves.

The Virginia Restructured Higher Education Financial and Administrative Operations Act of 2005 was the outcome of a deal between state legislators and university leaders in which the universities would take less money from the state in return for increased “autonomy”.

The universities saw this as an opportunity to get know-nothing political meddlers off their collective backs, and the politicians, nearly all with no stake in top-class universities, saw this as a way to free-up money that could be diverted to populist causes closer to their hearts.

This Faustian pact delivered mixed results.  It allowed the universities to escape such things as arbitrary tuition caps imposed by the state legislature, but the sought-for “autonomy” was only half-realized.

As long as the state still contributed the merest smidgen of a university’s budget, Virginia politicians believed they had every right to make the university dance to their tune.

Nothing, for example, was changed regarding the oversight exercised by the Board of Visitors, which continued to be stuffed with donors who by-and-large know nothing about running universities, but who had contributed generously to the election campaigns of the governor who appointed them (the afore-mentioned Helen Dragas being a case in point).

With decreased state support, universities had to seek alternative funding sources, so they turned to the business sector, where they were of course succulently appetizing lambs bleating for help from ravenous wolves.

Moreover, nearly every top-class US research university has something like a strategic investment fund.  The pace of research-innovation is so rapid nowadays that raising funds through traditional budgetary mechanisms is simply too slow.  As long as the strategic fund is well-managed and the money used appropriately– and the evidence is that UVA’s was– this is no more than the way a top-class American university functions today.

Republican snipping at UVA’s ankles is not new.

In 2010, the Virginia Attorney General Ken “Cooch” Cuccinelli, a Tea Party darling and UVA alumnus to boot, served a civil investigative demand on UVA seeking a wide range of documents relating to the work of Michael E. Mann, a climate scientist who was an assistant professor at UVA from 1999 to 2005 prior to moving to Penn State.

Cooch based his demand on the 2002 Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, without providing any evidence of wrongdoing on Mann’s or UVA’s part.

I’ve discussed this with lawyer friends, who concurred that only a bone-head or someone with ulterior motives (or both) would seek to use this Act to justify such an investigative demand, without at least making a prima facie case for a malfeasance, potentially amounting to defrauding taxpayers, on the part of the parties subjected to this investigative demand.

UVA, no doubt with advice from its own lawyers who saw this egregious case as an easy way to earn their salaries, resisted Cooch’s demand, and several rounds of a legal battle ensued, culminating in the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling that Cooch’s demand lacked legal authority.

Cooch’s legal costs were of course taken out of hapless taxpayer pockets.

Cooch’s aim– he has always been very vocal in his climate-change denialism– was clearly to intimidate and muzzle a climate-change researcher and the university which employed him.

Ideology undoubtedly is the primary motivating factor in the efforts of Dragas and Cooch, despite their lofty professions about a heartfelt concern regarding escalating student debt (Dragas), and safeguarding taxpayer interests (Cooch), and so forth.

Dragas wails over the “privatization” UVA has been undergoing, while being unaware of the causal mechanisms creating the very situation she laments.

Dragas, a whole-hearted proponent of running the university like a business, said in her op-ed piece that UVA should be “denouncing the rankings and embracing an identity that is more diverse, more affordable, more accessible and more nimble in adjusting to the dynamics of today’s learners”.

This is either sheer duplicity or breathtaking naiveté—the corporate model for running the university Dragas embraces is one that promotes, in the name of “healthy competition and meeting targets”, an ethos of rankings and performance targets!  What else are all those damn student evaluation forms for?

Has the fat cat Dragas not heard of the Fortune 500 and the plethora of other business magazine rankings of enterprises?  For this corporate model, if you aren’t ranked, you can’t really be viewed as a bona fide “investment opportunity”!

All else being equal, a company ranked #2 will be regarded more highly than one ranked #200– for one thing, the former is more likely to have that elusive property, “name recognition”, than the latter.

Why, especially for someone wedded to the corporate model in the way that Dragas is, should it be any different for universities?

Unless. Unless.

Could some other dimension of the corporate model, unstated by her, be motivating Dragas?

After all, the corporate model does provide another way of conceptualizing “business opportunities” for universities lacking the profile of an expensive top-ranked research university such as UVA’s.

This is the university as a low-cost credentialing mill entirely subservient to the requirements of the job market.  No pricey high-powered scientific research, no high-falutin’ studies of antiquity, no less commonly taught languages, no state of the art medical school (the Ivy League universities and places like Hopkins can do that), no “superfluous” critical studies in the humanities, and so on.

Just getting people ready for the job market is the mission of such places.

Tuition costs will be supremely affordable in this set-up, because UVA will effectively be an up-market trade school if it moves in this direction.

No need to spend money on hugely expensive machines analyzing blood cells in cancer research and the people to work them, just be a place which trains people to draw and process the blood used for such research.

Let’s not be snobbish, because trade schools are indispensable, as indeed are phlebotomists.  In fact, we invariably need more of them, along with properly remunerated apprenticeship schemes of the kind that have been very successful in some European countries.

The people in charge of the destiny of a world-class research university like UVA need to decide whether they want to provide adequate tax-based revenues for a university that is world class (with affordable tuition to boot), or if they would rather it became a neoliberal credentialing mill with very affordable tuition, but no world-class research.

The seemingly clueless Dragas, despite her years on UVA’s Board of Visitors and time there as a student, pits affordable tuition and high-level research as stark incompatibilities.  In a private university in the US they typically are, but in a public university they need not be.

UVA has been turned into a de facto private university by the decisions of neoliberal politicians and their acolytes like Dragas.  These decisions can always be reversed in a supposed democracy.

We know where Helen Dragas (by virtue of her deviously supple rhetoric about “affordability”) and Cooch (by virtue of his bogus defence of taxpayer “interests”) have placed their neoliberal bets.

It is up to other UVA stakeholders to decide otherwise.

A coda.

As Henry Giroux and others have pointed out in CounterPunch, American universities already conform root-and-branch to neoliberal imperatives.

The changes sought by Dragas and Cooch therefore represent a mere deepening and intensification of these imperatives, and not their negation.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.