Jumping Off the Seesaw
Gaye Tuchman considers issues of branding, risk management and corporatization at Penn State University and the University of Virginia.
Now that a little time has passed since Louis Freeh issued his report on the Penn State debacle, I’ve been reflecting on both the Penn State and U.Va. affairs. Reading the coverage, it seemed as though journalists and bloggers were observing a seesaw whose riders could not find equilibrium. When commentators compared the two state universities, they wrote about the relationship between presidents and trustees. The problem at Penn State, that argument ran, was that the trustees didn’t check up on the administrators. Instead, they participated in a culture that glorified football and the men associated with it. The problem at U.Va., that argument continued, was that the trustees stuck their noses in academic affairs, a place "where angels [should] fear to tread" – unless they truly understand online learning, MOOCs, hybrid courses, and perhaps even the contrast between close readings and the digital humanities.
Finding equilibrium is indeed a problem, but it is not the problem. The problem is corporatization. Not only trustees, but also politicians and administrators have bought into the current ideological assumption that higher education may once again thrive if it only becomes more business-like. The call to rationalization is not new. Nor are the characteristics of the people who are making that call. At many universities, the boards of trustees have much the same occupational distribution today as they had 30 or even 100 years ago, when in The Higher Learning in America, Thorsten Veblen wrote of how "captains of industry" were imposing their view of the world on universities.
Today’s situation seems so different, because after World War II, there was a “brief shining moment” when trustees, administrators and politicians deferred to faculty. Dedicated to leading the world in research and discovery, intent on expanding national productivity by educating the youth of the middle class and even the lower-middle class, government and corporate officials recognized professors as people who knew their stuff – as professionals who could decide which research was worthy of funding and publication and which topics were important to teach and learn. They also gave at least lip service to notions of shared governance – although it is also clear that those with a business orientation found the more idealistic liberalism of professors to be problematic. (Recall: Studies have found that people who become professors are more liberal than are the academically talented folk who enter other industries.)
Sometime in the 1980s, priorities began to shift and universities discovered that the supply of their previously preferred students – white males between the ages of 18 and 22-- was waning and the number of white women and people of color among high school graduates was growing larger. George Keller famously warned about this "revolution" in his classic 1983 book Academic Strategy. To fill the seats of classrooms and increase funds, at least some colleges and universities would have to expand their clientele. One way to do so is to accept nontraditional students, who today make up the bulk of the college-attending population. Another is to swipe undergraduates from other states and to charge them more. At Penn State’s University Park campus, in-state students pay $648 per credit and out-of-staters $1,161.
But supply, demand, and revenue streams were not the only issues. After all, to cite a waning supply of preferred students as a problem, one must be prepared to think about universities in terms of supply, demand, revenue streams, and marketing. After World War II, professionalism had been de rigueur, but corporate concerns personified as branding and marketing were to trump professionalism. Universities were to adopt facets of the institutional logic of the corporate world, as they competed for students, research money, reputation, philanthropic donations, and eventually even championship bowl wins. Instead of viewing higher education as an activity that contributed to the public good, corporate leaders, politicians, and even university administrators began to speak of it as an industry.
After drowning myself in news stories and commentary, I have come to think that Penn State and U.Va. share a common corporate concern with industrial competition, including branding. Both boards seem obsessed with risk, not in the old sense of the dangers faced when attempting to climb Mount Everest or dive off a platform 10 meters above a swimming pool. In those old examples, one faces risk by being brave. Today, like other corporatized organizations, universities face risk as what Michael Power has identified as "organized uncertainty" in his book of the same name. Sometimes you just can’t anticipate the results of even the best academic plans and organizational strategies. "The best-laid plans of mice and men" … and all that. As true of auto manufacturers, law firms, and insurance companies, the new corporatized universities care about risk as something to be managed, something that they can hope to control in order to ward off disaster. Like corporations they have departments dedicated to risk management.
The Freeh Report notes that at Penn State the Office of Risk Management "identifies and manages potential risks throughout the university related to financial, physical and reputational loss." The report states that "most of [the office’s] work centers on assessing contract-based risks," but even the inclusion of "reputation loss" is noteworthy. Supposedly, a university’s reputation contributes to the number of applications it receives and to its yield rate. Since the scandal began, applications to Penn State have risen by 1 percent and the number of donors has increased. Maybe these statistics mean that what matters is getting your name in print, as public relations specialists once assumed.
News reports do not specify the home states of these applicants. But, compared to some other East coast flagship universities, Penn State’s University Park campus takes a fair percentage of out-of-state students and so supposedly has an interest in its national reputation. Currently, 34 percent of the first-year students at Penn State’s University Park campus are not state residents. That’s a higher percentage than at the University of Connecticut, Storrs or the University of Massachusetts or the University of Virginia.
The U.Va. board's firing and rehiring of Teresa Sullivan also involved risk management. But the U.Va. Board of Visitors and the faculty cared about different risks. Apparently, members of the Board of Visitors feared that other prestigious universities would pass them in the race to become identified with online higher education; they are said to have worried that U.Va. wasn’t changing fast enough. Among the faculty the concern almost harkens back to the 1960s and 1970s: If the members of the board have so little regard for a president whom we respect and so little regard for our own professionalism, the occupationally mobile professoriate at U.Va. seemed to ask, is this a place where I want to be? Sullivan put it more directly: she worried that the actions of the Board of Visitors would encourage talented faculty to find jobs elsewhere. Not all professors can easily jump from one job to another. James Duderstadt was probably thinking of distinguished professors, like many of those found at U.Va, when in A University for the Twenty-First Century, he wrote that holding on to one's faculty can be like trying to keep frogs from leaping out of a wheelbarrow.
The Freeh Report on Penn State mentions risk and avoiding potential disaster by talking about how administrators engaged in what can be called a cover-up to protect "their brand." The Nittany Lions is more than a football team and its mascot. It is a university. Similarly, U.Va. has its brand. I don’t mean the plume-hatted cavalier whom I’ve seen swagger around at basketball games. I mean the glorification of academic integrity supposedly inherited from Thomas Jefferson, the founder of U.Va. If Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions had personified Penn State, Thomas Jefferson’s faith in the search for knowledge as truth has symbolized U.Va. Both representations are a brand.
Penn State, U.Va. and their governing boards messed up as they entered the fray of corporate competition. Neither university could find its balance on what commentators have described as a seesaw or balancing act. Each was so intent on glorifying its brand that key people forgot that education is not a competitive game. Penn State hyped football; U.Va., its status as the first public university and a leader in higher education.
Governing a university is not a matter of balancing the concerns of the board against those of the top administrators. A university is not a seesaw. Routinely, both presidents and trustees invoke "stakeholders" to show their understanding that many groups of people feel they have an interest in a university's future. Many strategic plans mention stakeholders; Helen Dragas, chair of the U.Va. board when it moved against Sullivan, referred to the participation of stakeholders in her June 21 statement about the challenges facing the University of Virginia. But, too often, when they make key decisions, trustees and presidents ignore the pretty sentiments etched in their plans and official statements. They return to the seesaw model.
A good solution to failed risk management at each of these schools is a return to shared governance. Many professors at Penn State had decried the power of the department of athletics. Many professors at U.Va. know much more about digitization than members of the Board of Visitors. Universities boards and administrators might want to recognize that professors are a resource, not just a nuisance to be audited and held accountability for their productivity and economic contribution to their employers.
Gaye Tuchman is professor emerita of sociology at the University of Connecticut. Her books include Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality and Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University.
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