Thursday, September 12, 2013

Mister Jefferson's Indecent Proposal

I am, I will freely admit, not the most impressive alumnus of Mr. Jefferson's University.   My undergraduate career was singularly undistinguished, as I struggled and floundered about trying to figure out exactly what it was I intended to do with my life.

Perhaps it has something to do with my sharing a birthday with another notoriously unsuccessful UVA student.  Edgar Allen Poe and I both managed not to quite stand out academically, for many of the same reasons.  I didn't gamble nearly as much, though I...cough...made up for it in other areas.

There were false starts and misses and at least one semester of academic probation, but when I did finally settle on Religious Studies as my major, things settled in.  And it was, without question, an astounding and transforming experience.

The department and the professors were excellent across the board, as demanding and enlightening as any I've had in my masters and doctoral studies, and what I learned there continues to inform my vocation as a Presbyterian pastor.

I've also been a tick remiss at giving to my alma mater, perhaps because while I value that education, I'm reasonably sure that their five point three billion dollar endowment is adequate.

It was an excellent, world-class education, and, notably, also one that managed to be affordable.  That commitment to a first tier education at a sane cost is what made the University of Virginia a truly great institution, and it is a commitment that is in danger.

A recent task force convened to make recommendations about the future direction of the University has proposed making changes designed to make it less of a public school.  There need to be fewer connections to the state, and more focus on making UVA like a Harvard or a Princeton.

On the one hand, given what often comes out of Richmond, I can see that.  Virginia has some remarkably shortsighted folks in power, and a significant element within Virginia leadership is actively opposed to academic liberty.  Attorney General Cuccinelli's grandstanding suppression of scientific research and his efforts to intimidate scholars haven't exactly deepened the love between the state and its historic flagship university.

On the other, well, that first hand isn't why this is being done.  The rationale behind the report, which you can read right here, is deeply grounded in something else.

A premier education yields high ROI, we hear.   The idea that higher education is a public good is waning, the report notes, and instead, institutions should focus on education as a competitive endeavor.  The goal of an educational institution in such a context is to compete for the best students, and to use "innovative, market-based solutions" to increase financial viability.

Although if you're already charging four times what you were when I attended, and you're sitting on five point three billion dollars, it would seem that you should be doing fine on the financial viability side.  But maybe I'm missing something.

Moving away from being a traditionally public and state-affiliated school would allow UVA to position itself as a premiere national semi-private institution, which would have two collateral results.  One, it would have a much larger pool of top-tier students if it was free to increase out of state attendance.  Two, and related, those top-tier out-of-staters would bring in a whole bunch more money, as out of state tuition is considerably higher.  As a semi-private school, that could be set higher still.

As a University of Virginia trained teacher of practical ethics...well, that's part of being a pastor, anyway...what strikes me about the implications of that is rooted in a section of the opening statement.
The University as an economic engine yields a high return on investment, making long term support a moral and economic imperative.
Our morality is our teleological framework, or to say that rather less densely, it's the framework through which we understand our relation to one another and the world around us.  Morality establishes value.  It gives us a way to define and understand the good.  I know this, because it's what I do.

What is clear from this planning statement, in both its language and its underlying assumptions, is that this views education through the moral framework of profit-seeking enterprise.  The University is an "economic engine."  That is what gives it value.

With that as a governing ethic, students become profit centers and/or consumers.  Professors and teaching assistants and high-cost/low-profit small classes and intimate, well-run discussion sections become financial liabilities, to be minimized through cost-cutting and finding efficiencies.

And administrators?  Well, we need to pay them well, so that we can attract the best talent.  Of course.  That goes without saying.

But when consumerism as a moral and ethical framework comes to define education, when a "Public Ivy" becomes a pricey boutique product for the elite?  That hardly serves the interests of the state of Virginia.

Just the interests of those with resources either inherited or borrowed, and those who get wealthy selling them the premiere education experience and market ROI of a recognizable brand.

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