Monday, June 18, 2012

A Coup d'état at Mr. Jefferson's Academical Village

The Rotund and The Lawn at The University of Virginia
In the town of Charlottesville, in the center of Virginia, sits a very, very important institution, The University of Virginia (known locally as simply The University).  Founded in 1825 by Thomas Jefferson, UVa has a long history of academic excellence.  If you ever have a chance to visit, you should.  It's where I did my graduate work in anthropology and lived for 15 years.  Notable alum (besides me!) include Georgia O'Keefe, Edgar Allen Poe, and Katie Couric.

But all is not well in Mr. Jefferson's Academical Village.  The President of the University, Teresa Sullivan was forced to resign by the University's Board of Visitors.  Why this happened has been the subject of numerous articles but suffice it to say that it was a move orchestrated by the backers of the Darden School of Business who felt that the President was insufficiently deferent to their desires.

I've long detested the whole notion of a business "school" as a useful part of any liberal arts university, especially with one with such outstanding commitment to research and learning like UVa.  Business is best taught at a trade school.  It's been clear to me for some time that the mission of a business "school" is at odds with the mission of a research institution.  Why?  Because business demands conformity and liberal arts demands creativity. The two do not co-exist well.
There are few institutions, organizations, or people in America who can escape being subject to the cold breath of market discipline at some time or another. 
In the academic context, this influence is often actively pernicious. The foundation of market discipline is failure, not success: unsuccessful businesses are forced out and the path cleared and resources (customers, workers, capital) freed up for the more successful ones (this does not always work perfectly in practice). In the UVA situation, one of the complaints seems to have been that Sullivan was unwilling to cut “obscure academic departments in classics and German.”
But beyond that, the very notion that business and academe can find common ground is preposterous.
[The] purpose [of an academic university like Virginia] is the creation, preservation, and transmission of knowledge, both for the current generation and future ones. This is not merely for current or prospective students, but for American (and even global) society in general. These lofty ambitions are frequently met more in the breach than the observance, and academia has all sorts of corruptions and problems unique to itself, but they nonetheless exist. One of the fundamental parts of that responsibility is actively to study, save, and talk about the obscure, the lost, the unpopular, and the unfashionable. In fact, in many ways that is the most important responsibility. Famous, popular, and fashionable knowledge tends to preserve itself, at least in the short term. Marginalized knowledge disappears. If classics was truly obscure, that would be all the more reason for the University of Virginia to study it. There are, of course, all sort of limits on this, but the fundamental point remains. Cutting things simply because they are obscure, lost, unpopular, and unfashionable, the heart of the market’s discipline, cuts out the core of the scholarly discipline. If business and academia function exactly as they should, especially if they function exactly as they should, they are antithetical to each other. The American secular religion may be business and its temple Wall Street, but scholars and their institutions should avoid genuflecting. There are few universities in the United States with more such responsibility than one birthed by a founding father. 
It's time to take a stand against the Darden School heathens who seem determined to knock down Mr. Jefferson's Academical Village to make way for a strip-mall.  Shame on them and shame to any alum who lets this happen.

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