ON CONSTRUCTIVE CHANGE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
A Presentation to the Board of Visitors
By Ruhi Ramazani
November 12, 1993
Ever since the historic meeting of the Assembly of Professors on December 22, 1992, I have been saying that as faculty we are not against change, we are for constructive change. On November 4 I told the Director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) the same thing and also added that as early as January 7, 1993, I had called for a constructive dialogue with SCHEV. He seemed intrigued by my idea of constructive change and welcomed the notion of faculty-SCHEV dialogue. This event has prompted me to explain today what I consider to be the most fundamental requirements of constructive change from the perspective of a faculty member who has witnessed with pride and joy over the past four decades the rise of this beloved University from a parochial "Academical Village" to national and international prominence as a research university.
Requirements of Change
1. Understand Problems of Higher Education
As the first requirement of change, the perception that the problems of higher education stem from scarce money must be demystified. To be sure, the world economy is stagnant, the United States is no longer the world's creditor nation, the Virginia economy has been experiencing a downturn for at least a decade, and higher education's portion of the state's total general budget has fallen since 1981 from 16.8 to 12 percent. And now we are told the state may face a $500 million revenue shortfall and higher education must be prepared for a possible 10 to 15 percent budget cut. Only a fool would deny that this is a very serious problem. And as the Commission on the University of the 21st Century prudently put it, "the people of this state can expect excellent colleges and universities only if they are willing to provide the funds needed to run them...." (Commission on the University of the 21st Century, p. 19).
But as important as money is for higher education, as for everything else, it is neither the whole problem nor the whole solution. Higher education today faces an incredibly complex and interconnected host of challenges that are essentially social, political, intellectual, technological, ecological, psychological, and demographic in nature. They come both from within and outside the University. They are, in a nutshell, the challenges arising from rapidly changing civilizations. As such, their effects on higher education can not and should not be reduced to any monistic diagnosis or single-cure prescription like money. That may even kill the patient unless the money problem is understood in connection with all these other nonmonetary challenges from a holistic perspective in the spirit of Lewis Thomas who said, "The natural world is all of a piece, we all know this in our bones, but we have a long, long way to go before we will see how the connections are made" (Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, Viking Press, 1983, p. 162).
2. From Academical Village to Global Academy
Second, constructive change requires a broad vision of education. In his day, Thomas Jefferson considered education to be "democracy's salvation." Today, I believe education to be "humanity's salvation." Many research universities have been involving themselves in the process of "internationalization" of their students, faculty, and curricula in response to dramatic economic, demographic, technological, scientific, political and other changes within and outside the United States. And yet, no other research university can claim a founder whose pervasive ideas of freedom, independence, and democracy have universal validity. The end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union have been accompanied by the rising demand around the world for democratization, or at least some form of political participation. But the people of the world demand more than democracy. They clamor for freedom from poverty, disease, violence, anonymity, and illiteracy. Such a broad vision of education would further humanize the University's mission of teaching, research, and service in an age when an indiscriminate application of advanced technology to teaching could threaten the value of personal interaction between the faculty and students, a hallowed tradition at the University, and one that is well worth preserving.
3. Dispel Misperceptions about Faculty
Setting the record straight about the public perception of the faculty is the third element of constructive change. There is a profound confusion about the images of both higher education and professors. A recent Associated Press Series of reports for all practical purposes publicized what may be called "Profscamism." Too much research, too little teaching, too high salaries and the other diatribes (in which pundits have indulged for years) were forcefully brought to public attention in Virginia. Except for the fact that many politicians and political appointees easily jumped on the bandwagon and called for rapid and decisive change in higher education, to date no one has bothered to say that the public does not share either the pundits' view of education or their disrespect of professors. Quite the contrary, systematic surveys and public opinion polls contradict the negative images of both that anecdotal journalism has perpetuated. For example, over a twenty- year period from 1972-1992 public confidence in education, including education-related medicine and science, rated at 41% as compared with only 21% for the press, 26% for major companies, 29% for banks, and 13% for organized labor (See Daedalus, Fall 1993, p. 90).
The pundits and the press are also badly mistaken about the public images of both professors and their research. A Gallup Poll of June 1992, for example, shows that "51% of the popula
tion rated ethical standards of college teachers high, and 39 percent rated them as average. Only five percent rated college professors as having low standards of honesty and ethics" (As cited in Report, p. 10). A more recent survey shows that, "People are proud of the quality of higher education in the United States. They respect the research function of the university . . . and they are usually, although not universally, inclined to blame the general economy, rather than administrators or faculty members, for increases in college costs" (Report, p. 8).
4. Contain Intellectual Polarization, Disciplinary Tyranny and
Lest the above discussion of public approval go to our head, I should add quickly that the fourth requirement of constructive change is reasoned self-criticism. The arguments about "political correctness" pass the public by, and so far the University has been spared the kind of acrimonious debates that have torn campuses apart across the country. But it behooves us to look hard at the experience of other research universities in which the antagonism between the traditionalist and postmodernist, between the realist and anti-realist, between the objectivist and the subjectivist has poisoned every aspect of academic life from student admission to faculty recruitment, and from renewal of terms to promotion.
Intellectual polarization is going hand in hand with what has been known for a long time as the "tyranny of the disciplines," although they have different sources. In the latter case, the so-called "information explosion" is blamed at least for part of the problem of overspecialization and disciplinary tyranny. It is used to rationalize what I may call learning more and more about less and less. The victim seems to be liberal education, whether the battle lines are drawn around disciplines or ideologies of the Right and the Left.
Combined with intellectual polarization and disciplinary rigidity, personal self-interest threatens loyalty to the University. Preoccupation with the assertion of rights sometimes drowns out a sense of responsibility. These tendencies play right into the hands of state bureaucrats who would like to preach accountability and productivity. They threaten the loss of our institutional autonomy unless we exercise "self-discipline." In the meantime, as state budgetary support has been decreasing state bureaucratic intrusion has been increasing exponentially. If you do not believe me, live the life of a chairman or a dean or a provost for just a couple of weeks. Or ask those poor souls who direct our Division of Classification and Compensation, or Division of Employment Services and Human Resources System, or the Department of Purchasing and Material Services. You will hear horror stories of red tape.
5. Increase Diversity
Diversity of our students, faculty, administrators and staff must be maintained and expanded as the fifth and one of the most important prerequisites of constructive change. Those few of us who saw the University four decades ago can not believe our eyes today. The disappearance of the ubiquitous coat and tie was only the surface manifestation of far more profound changes, such as the enrollment of women, and of men and women of all races, religions, nationalities, and sexual orientation. All these changes have been helped by the University's traditional values of tolerance, civility, and reason. And yet. there is one kind of diversity in particular that we must protect and promote most of all because it is threatened most of all. That is, the admission of out-of-state students. In the words of the Commission on the University of the 21st Century, "Limiting out-of-state students is not consistent with Virginia's leadership aspirations. Broad accessibility to a range of students is particularly important, for instance, in recruiting faculty to the Commonwealth's colleges and universities. Thus we strongly endorse the current Virginia practice of permitting its colleges and universities to accept substantial numbers of students from other states. Indeed, we encourage the institutions to diversify their student populations even more, including students from states that are not geographically close to Virginia and from other nations."
6. Foster "Joint Leadership"
A new, bold and imaginative enlargement of faculty participation in the affairs of the University is the sixth basic condition of constructive change. "In the future," said President John T. Casteen, III, on September 24, 1993, "preserving the University's reputation for excellence, as well as developing its potential for leadership, will require creative solutions from all the members of the University community, working together in the spirit of change and innovation. " (Change and Innovation in Tough Times: How the University of Virginia has Dealt with Economic Recession). Taking this call at its face value, it is an invitation to foster what I call a form of "joint leadership" between the administration and the faculty. If such a model of decisionmaking is ever effectuated, the University will be placed on the map as having undertaken the most progressive model of response to the challenge of change ever envisaged. Former Stanford University President Donald Kennedy predicts three modes of response. These are: (1) "distributed faculty responses," (2) responses by coalitions of "unusually effective" administrative leaders and their faculties, and (3) late and hasty responses by the boards of trustees or visitors and administrators as a result of external pressures in a crisis situation. He prefers the faculty-administrators coalition model, for it would respond first to challenges for basic change.
I believe the joint leadership model fits the conditions of the University for three reasons. First, the faculty enjoy a tradition of informal but effective participation in decisionmaking in spite of the well-known weakness of the Senate. Second, the student body is significantly self-governing, is represented on the Board of Visitors, and runs the Honor System. And third, the Assembly of Professors has made a dramatic departure from past practice: it has not returned to the barracks so to speak. Quite the contrary, it has involved itself actively in University affairs through the Concerned Faculty Group and its Steering Committee. It has cooperated with the Senate in drafting the report endorsed by both faculty groups and entitled Sustaining and Building Excellence in Difficult Times: The Research University in the 1990s: The Case of the University of Virginia.
7. Preserve and Enhance University Autonomy and
And finally, none of the above or other constructive changes can possibly be effectuated without university autonomy and academic freedom for these are the fundamental values behind excellence in higher education. Legally the autonomy of the University is entrusted to its Board of Visitors and embodied in the Code of Virginia and the Manual of the Board. The Commission on the University of the 21st Century recognized that there are other ways to organize higher education, but it "believed that in the long run the strongest institutions are those that enjoy considerable autonomy." In my forty years of experience here at the University, the Board has unflinchingly exercised its oversight responsibilities autonomously. For example, in January 1991 and again in June 1993 the Board, by means of its two important resolutions, resisted external pressures for enrollment growth without financial support.
The Board's protection of the University's autonomy is inextricably intertwined with the Rector's duty to protect the Board's "independence from outside influences harmful to the interests of the students and faculty of the University" (Manual of the Board of Visitors, Section 4.1, p. 15). There is no greater interest of the faculty than academic freedom, rooted as it is philosophically in the autonomy of human reason. No university other than the University of Virginia can claim a founder who has made a comparable moral and intellectual contribution to the concept of academic freedom, and no university can aspire to quality, much less greatness, without academic freedom. And for the protection of academic freedom there is no better way--indeed, no alternative way-than a system of tenure which enables and encourages faculty members to follow the Jeffersonian precept enshrined in these memorable words: "Here we are not afraid to follow truth, wherever it may lead, nor tolerate error so long as reason is left free to combat it."
Because of university autonomy and academic freedom America has become the world's superpower in higher education. For the future of our country and of the world, we must preserve and enh
ance this unrivaled position. And for the future of the Commonwealth, we--Virginia's political leaders and the general public no less than the administration, faculty and students--must continue to strive to make this university one of the best.
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