Ideas have consequences: Prometheanism, the university as corporation, and the leadership debacle at the University of Virginia

One of the books I am currently reading is Public no more: a new path for excellence for America’s public universities. This is a book by Gary C. Fethke and Andrew J. Policano, two business school administrators who explore how market-focussed techniques that apparently are common in U.S. business schools could be applied to the larger enterprise of running a public research university.

One of the thrilling things about this book is just how far out of line it is with what I (and the authors) imagine to be mainstream thought on the purpose of higher education, its relationship to societal and personal benefit, and the definitions of quality and success.  The authors take a fundamentally and completely market-based and competition-driven approach to their analysis, and seem genuinely unable to see any value in (or at times even literally understand) more traditional approaches.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is in their discussion of “value” in higher education. Here they contrast what they see as the mainstream focus on “lofty principles” with their own metric-focussed approach:

Value in higher education is often presented in the context of lofty principles because university leaders avoid being precise in defining it. Some perhaps find it easier to use more conceptual, less quantifiable notions–“teaching the ability to think critically” or “the attainment of a liberal education” or the “provision of the skills to analyze critically today’s changing societal problems”–than to offer a measurable, implementable definition. Many in higher education still heartily agree with the nineteenth-century position of John Stuart Mill, who asserted that “the object universities is not to make skillful lawyers, physicians or engineers” but “to make capable and cultivated human beings” (26).

The approach they recommend, on the other hand, focusses on a more precise measurement of benefit and cost.

We argue that value is not usefully defined only as reflecting a set of intrinsic and etheral features of higher education. A major weakness in the strategic planning process of public universities is their inability to readily quantify, or even to see to quantify, the value created by their activities….

We prefer to measure the value of higher education in real dollars by the difference between what consumers and users, both public and private, are willing to pay for an educational product and the opportunity cost of all resources devoted to providing that education. Thus,

Value = willingness to pay – opportunity cost of resources

A rise in educational value occurs when willingness to pay increases relative to the cost of the associated resources used to provide the education (26-27).

It is possible to understand these two approaches to ascertaining value as being of different orders: as statements of value and pricing, for example, or strategy and tactics. While university administrators are often accused by faculty of knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing, it remains the case that even an administrator with a profound sense of “lofty principle” is also tasked with ensuring there are resources to support it.

In the case of Fethke and Policano, however, their understanding of value is accompanied by other core premises that make it fundamentally incompatible with more mainstream views.

The most important of these is the idea that higher education is a fundamentally competitive enterprise. That is to say that increasing the value of an institution necessarily involves finding competitive advantage: a unique “value proposition” that it can sell to its customers and that distinguishes it from its “competitors”:

Analyses of both external environments and the strategies of competitors provide critical input to the creation of value and vision. A vision statement expresses what the institution wants to become. Most of us understand the irony of saying, “we want to be like everybody else” or “we want to be the top”; yet that is exactly what many aspirational plans state. Public universities do a rather poor job of developing unique visions of how they want to distinguish themselves from their peers. Every major public research university seeks to develop academic excellence in teaching and research, but the pressing issue is exactly how this can be accomplished in ways that differentiate one university from all others. To be “different” suggests that there are peers or rivals similar to you and that you can take actions to improve your position relative to theirs in ways that provide clear value. But if rivals are not acknowledged, relative positioning strategies will not be articulated. Can anyone imagine the retail giant Target ignoring Wal-Mart in planning what it wants to be in the next three to five years? Is Apple’s vision “to be just like Hewlett-Packard?” Can Boeing ignore what Airbus might be planning? (36-37).

One of the interesting effects of this focus on competitive differentiation is a blindness to the notion that breadth of community and study could be a defining characteristic of the sector as whole: that Universities might be both defined and valuable for their focus on the aggregation of scholars, scientists, and students working in a broad range of fields as well as their ability to teach and research in individual domains.

This is particularly evident in their sense that Universities should do things either best or not at all. That they should isolate the programmes that are “excellent,” provide those with resources, and eliminate those that are not. In part because they seem genuinely not to  understand the value proposition inherent in “lofty principles” of breath of learning or liberal education and in part because they define value in terms of a purely economic return on investment of individual programmes, they believe that breadth of endeavour produces a “conglomerate discount,” a situation in which in a diversified company the dissipation of focus created by maintaining a diversity of business units detracts from the overall value created by those units–resulting in the whole being valued lower than the intrinsic worth of the individual components  (Fethke and Policano are clearly not fans of the undergraduate minor).

A vision defines the scope of products and services that will be provided. The absurdity of saying the institution will offer a class “in every topic of human knowledge” is clear…. Excessively broad scope in academic research programs and enterprises is a critical issue. The relevant questions for assessing any academic program might be:

    • Is the program consistent with the university’s vision?
    • Does the program offer the potential for the chosen quality of instruction and research?
    • Can graduates find employment in their chosen field?
    • Is there sufficient revenue to cover the financial cost of the program?

If the answer to any of these is no, then a decision needs to be made to downsize, eliminate, or expand…. It may be that the only way to retain the distinction of being a very-high-research public university is to shrink program scope. Perhaps a better strategy is to be distinguished in a fewer number of programs than to be mediocre in many. Such questions cannot be answered generally, but one hopes they will be addressed with courage by each institution, because there will be resistance (45).

The last sentence in the above passage points to why this approach to higher education is so dangerous: the focus on its adherents’ courage and the idea that opposition is unreasonable “resistance” to be overcome instead of potentially reasoned counter argument to be taken into account. Although there is no inherent reason why administrators cannot focus on both “lofty principle” and cost-benefit analysis, or on relative quality and intrinsic value, Fethke and Policano understand university governance as a zero-sum, adversarial game: administrators either triumph over faculty resistance or they lose control of their institutions. In their world, there are only winners and losers: every winner implies a loser, and the stakes of winning are so high that heroic leaders need to be willing to transgress core community values if they are prepared to win over the inevitable (and intellectually unimportant) resistance of the faculty:

The message for university leadership is that tough decisions are necessary to maintain the discipline required to adopt a unique positioning strategy. Effective strategy involves making trade-offs; for example, higher quality requires higher expenditure. Consensus-building, which is widely admired in higher education, does not enhance effective decision making. Perhaps the most difficult choice for leadership is whether to continue to work toward consensus in a declining institution or to take the difficult and precarious path to ensure the university’s future excellence. As is often the case in organizational dynamics, the leadership cohort that implements effective change may not survive (48).

If this sounds familiar, it is because we’ve just heard these arguments employed in the field. By chance, my copy of Public no more arrived just as the University of Virginia governance fiasco began and I have been struck by how easily it could have served as a playbook for the Board of Visitors and especially the University’s rector, Helen Dragas. Dragas’s public statements on the rationale for ousting President Teresa Sullivan closely echo the focus on competitive differentiation promoted by Fehtke and Policano (see, for example, here), and her initial defence of Board for the irregular process by which Sullivan was removed involves a similar argument that the courageousness and weight of the decision excuses the fact that core values and procedures were violated. Even the resignation of Vice Rector Mark Kington is in keeping with Fehtke and Policano’s suggestion that bold leadership may lead to what they portray, in essence, as martyrdom.

Impatient, messianic devotion to revolutionary change is rarely a good way of running complex organisations, and especially not organisations whose “lofty ideals” include a commitment to argument, debate, and consensus. Quick and far-reaching action may be necessary in cases where a university is in clear decline or otherwise in breach of its mandate. But as Dragas and the Virginia Board of Visitors have shown, even supposedly “hard headed” and “business-oriented” leaders can prove remarkably naive–and extremely destructive–when they let ideology and (let’s call it for what it is) idealism drive their analysis and action (I’ve already written about Fehtke and Policano’s strong sense of the uniqueness of their historical moment). Under the slogan “ideas have consequences,” conservatives used to be in the habit of warning liberals about the dangers of Prometheanism–the suggestion that ‘man in this world cannot make his will his law without any regard to limits and to the fixed nature of things.’ Now they seem quite prepared to ignore their own previous advice. But in this instance, the UVa fiasco is clearly a consequence of ideas very like those promoted by Fehtke and Policano.


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