Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 25, 2012

The University of Virginia fracas

Filed under: computers,Education — louisproyect @ 7:55 pm

Over a 22 year career in Columbia University’s IT department, I naturally followed administrative affairs at other universities. I began reading Chronicle of Higher Education back in 1990 mostly as a way of keeping up-to-date with “back office” concerns, especially how computer systems were being used. After a few months, I discovered that this trade magazine could also be relied upon for useful coverage of “the culture wars”, such as Ward Churchill’s firing, etc.

When I first got wind of the forced resignation of the University of Virginia’s President Teresa Sullivan, I wrote it off as some kind of turf battle. As a kind of relic of the medieval world, universities tend to divide into fiefdoms so firings and forced resignations are par for the course. But after a while it became obvious that what happened there had a lot more to do with what’s happening in American society over the past decade or so as the corporate elites of one percent infamy tighten their control over every aspect of our lives, including the Ivory Tower.

Sullivan’s resignation was announced on June 10 and reported in the Chronicle as resulting from “significant disagreements between Ms. Sullivan and the Board of Visitors [another term for board of trustees] about how best to position the historic institution for success in the 21st century.” She had come to U. Va. from the University of Michigan, the same institution that Columbia’s Lee Bollinger had ruled before coming here. As you would expect, she was probably no different than Bollinger or 90 percent of the presidents running colleges today, people once described by Upton Sinclair in “The Goosestep: a study of American Education”:

Thus the college president spends his time running back and forth between Mammon and God, known in the academic vocabulary as Business and Learning. He pleads with the business man to make a little more allowance for the eccentricities of the scholar; explaining the absurd notion which men of learning have that they owe loyalty to truth and public welfare. He points out that if the college comes to be known as a mere tool of special privilege it loses all its dignity and authority; it is absolutely necessary that it should maintain a pretense of disinterestedness, it should appear to the public as a shrine of wisdom and piety. He points out that Professor So-and-So has managed to secure great prestige throughout the state, and if he is unceremoniously fired it will make a terrific scandal, and perhaps cause other faculty members to resign, and other famous scientists to stay away from the institution.

Sullivan, like Bollinger, spent her time running between Mammon and God at U. of Va. but apparently not fast enough to assuage “visitor” Helen Dragas, a rector of the university and a real estate developer. What? You were expecting a poet or a sculptor maybe? Dragas’s main ally on the board was Vice Rector Mark Kington, who ran an asset management firm, another prerequisite for overseeing an institution of higher learning. The third and most interesting member of the anti-Sullivan triumvirate was Peter Kiernan, who was chairman of U. Va.’s Darden Business School board of trustees and formerly a Goldman-Sachs partner. This Kiernan is a real piece of work, based on the fawning NY Times Dealbook profile from February 29th of this year written by the loathsome Andrew Ross Sorkin, infamous for his article sneering at Occupy Wall Street.

Ultimately, Mr. Kiernan, 58, says he believes we need to put aside political differences to solve our national problems and avoid losing our place in the global pecking order, a doctrine he calls “radical centrism.”

“I was really writing the book to people to say, here’s what you’ve got to do to lead the country in uncertain times,” Mr. Kiernan said, over a recent lunch at the Peking Duck House in New York’s Chinatown. “For once, I wanted to read a book that is agnostic to political parties.”

At Goldman, Mr. Kiernan – a rugged Irish Catholic with a firm handshake and a polished demeanor straight out of Wall Street central casting – was better known for his philanthropy than his politics. He headed the Robin Hood Foundation, an antipoverty group whose ranks are populated by financial titans, and led a charity bicycle ride through Vietnam in 1998, with the proceeds going to disabled veterans.

So, when you put together people like Dragas, Kington and Kiernan, the results are predictable. They will be focused on the university’s “bottom line”, and all the rest—from scholarship to teaching young people how to become good citizens—be damned. Kiernan, like Kington, resigned not long after the national media got a hold of the Sullivan story. This was obviously meant to release some steam rather than solve the underlying problem, namely Mammon running roughshod over culture.

The smoking gun in all this was an email from Dragas to Kington calling attention to a Wall Street Journal article touting the benefits of computerized classes written by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe. (Don’t miss Doug Henwood’s interview with Moe here.) Dragas’s subject heading was “we can’t afford to wait”. The title of the WSJ article was most revealing, almost as written to illustrate volume one of Karl Marx’s Capital: “The substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive) can vastly increase access to an elite-caliber education”. While Marx usually wrote about this in the context of Britain’s textile mills, apparently 21st century capitalism has every worker in its sights, including those in the halls of ivy.

Chubb and Moe are Hoover Institution scholars. Yes, I know, you weren’t expecting that. Both are fanatical rightwingers who have targeted teachers both at the college and secondary education level. They don’t see any particular need to be at Harvard to get a top-flight education:

The fact is, students do not need to be on campus at Harvard or MIT to experience some of the key benefits of an elite education. Moreover, colleges and universities, whatever their status, do not need to put a professor in every classroom. One Nobel laureate can literally teach a million students, and for a very reasonable tuition price. Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive)–as has happened in every other industry–making schools much more productive.

One would be hard-pressed, however, to say whether they want to make a Harvard education available globally to any son or daughter foolish enough to part with their money, or to adopt a different education model altogether:

Don’t dismiss the for-profit colleges and universities, either. Institutions such as the University of Phoenix–and it is hardly alone–have embraced technology aggressively. By integrating online courses into their curricula and charging less-than-elite prices for them, for-profit institutions have doubled their share of the U.S. higher education market in the last decade, now topping 10%. In time, they may do amazing things with computerized instruction–imagine equivalents of Apple or Microsoft, with the right incentives to work in higher education–and they may give elite nonprofits some healthy competition in providing innovative, high-quality content.

As to be expected, Chubb and Moe swept for-profit school failure under the rug. If this type of institution is supposed to be a harbinger of things to come in higher education, American society will be going down the drain a lot faster than anybody expected. What places like these are best at is not educating people, but ripping them off. Through clever advertising campaigns, from all appearances the number one placement on NYC’s buses and subways, they tell working class kids—especially Blacks and Latinos—that a degree from such a school will get them a good job.

The Huffington Post reported  on what really makes for-profit institutions tick. Here’s a hint. It is not computers, but the cash register:

And despite the considerable cost, federal data show that for-profit colleges on average devote less than a third of the money that public universities do toward student instruction, and less than a fifth of the money spent on students by private non-profit institutions.

Much of the money is instead going toward marketing and recruiting new students, and to executive compensation and profits. According to securities filings for some of the larger publicly traded corporations that own for-profit schools, more than 30 percent of revenues are being redirected toward marketing efforts and administrative costs.

There is a tremendous irony in the U. of Va. crisis considering the school’s origins in 1819. It was founded by Thomas Jefferson and the first board of trustees included him, and two other former presidents James Madison and James Monroe.

In a letter written to British scientist Joseph Priestley, Jefferson declared: “We wish to establish in the upper country of Virginia, and more centrally for the State, a University on a plan so broad and liberal and modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us.”

We’ve come a long way from the “cup of knowledge” considering what can be found on the university’s website, even before Dragan’s vision for the future is realized. This is from the Corporate Connections page, shamelessly placed as a link on the university’s home page.

Welcome to the University of Virginia’s “Corporate Connections” gateway. This site will help you navigate through the variety of ways the University relates to and collaborates with business, industry and private foundations.

The Corporate and Foundation Relations office seeks to maximize contributions and other support to the University of Virginia from corporations and foundations, by creating, maintaining and enhancing mutually beneficial relationships between these entities and university units.

We provide an infrastructure for prospect coordination, planning, solicitation and other services that empower university units to conduct these activities in the most effective manner. Our central staff can help you get started based upon your interests and needs. Call (434) 924-4159, e-mail Nick Duke, or write: Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations, University of Virginia, P.O. Box 400807, Charlottesville, Virginia 22904-4807

Among the fruit borne from this poisonous bush is this:

Philip Morris USA Supports Medical Research and Business Leadership with a $25 Million Gift to U.Va.

This is a bit of Philip Morris PR designed to deflect attention from its primary purpose, namely to sell cancer sticks. It should be mentioned as well that the “Nick Duke” inviting emails above is none other than Nicholas R. Duke, a scion of the tobacco-growing empire. How appropriate.

In addition to the company’s support for the University of Virginia, Philip Morris USA has made significant investments in youth-smoking prevention and cessation programs and in research.

Since 1998, Philip Morris USA has invested $1 billion in youth-smoking prevention programs through its Youth Smoking Prevention department and its responsible retailing incentives.

Between 1999 and 2006, Philip Morris USA has provided grants in excess of $176 million to schools, school districts and youth-focused organizations across the United States to help them implement programs that help young people develop confidence and avoid risky behaviors, such as smoking.

Somehow the tobacco giant’s good intentions were lost on the government of Uruguay that like other subversive states in Latin America decided to put the health of its population above that of what Upton Sinclair called Mammon. From the Daily Beast:

Except over a glass of ruby Tannat wine or a sizzling tenderloin, most people pay little mind to Uruguay. But just mention this demure South American nation to the tobacco industry and watch the smoke billow. A long-burning row between the government in Montevideo and cigarette maker Philip Morris is slowly turning into the mother of asymmetric battles.

Earlier this year, little Uruguay (68,000 square miles, half again the size of Cuba), with a population of 3.5 million and a GDP of $44 billion, tightened the already drastic restrictions on local sales of cigarettes. The international tobacco colossus, with a market capitalization of $107 billion and legions of high-priced lawyers and lobbyists from Bern to the Washington Beltway, struck back, filing a complaint with the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes. The battlefield is minuscule, the size of a pack of smokes. But the case is starting rows over national sovereignty, free trade, and public health that show little sign of dissipating any time soon. Through it all, Uruguay has stood firm, showing it can go toe to toe with giants.

Of course, I am obliged to inform my readers that there is a certain consistency in the U. of Va.’s ties to Phillip Morris. After all, the main cash crop on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation was tobacco.


  1. This is just now heating up. Tomorrow (June 26). per Bloomberg, the UVa faculty may strike back and rehire the president.

    See http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-06-25/virginia-echoes-harvard-as-faculty-rises-up-to-rehire-president.html.

    Stay tuned. Somehow, knowing Virginia only too well from personal experience, I think the result will be depressing no matter which side wins.

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — June 25, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

  2. Why is that you left out the other half of the portrayal by Sinclair of the President? The one which explains why the Sullivans of the academic world are no better than the Dragas’s? To ask is to answer the question, I suppose.

    Comment by Stephen Diamond — June 26, 2012 @ 3:25 am

  3. Universities are running to the private sector because their public subsidy is gone. And the entire edifice is being held up by the student loan racket.

    Comment by purple — June 26, 2012 @ 6:12 am

  4. money doesn’t talk it swears. still, if faculty and alumni win this round, it will make other boards think twice before pulling the same sort of shenanegans. no one no matter how wealthy wants to have to call one of those PR firms that specialize in “crisis management.”

    Comment by Markus (bard '90) — June 26, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

  5. This just in – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/27/education/university-of-virginia-reinstates-ousted-president.html – the swift reversal of the 2002 coup vs. Chavez in Venezuela involuntarily leaps to mind.

    Comment by Fred Murphy — June 27, 2012 @ 3:36 am

  6. Another flagship state university president came close to being fired last month among other things for opposing state Governor’s plans for treating students as ‘customers’. This same governor was too busy with his presidential campaign last year, but once that went up in smoke in a matter of seconds during a debate, he’s back to basics of state politics placing his knife-wielding Aggie buddy/crony (one of the most retrograde, militarist, homophobic campuses in the country which houses presidential library of George H.W. Bush) near the top of the cash-starved State Motor Vehicle agency.

    Comment by chrisb — June 27, 2012 @ 4:50 am

  7. This incident show how little has changed since Thorstein Veblen wrote his The Higher Learning in America (http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/veblen/higher), which I believe was one of the inspirations for Upton Sinclair’s nove.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — July 1, 2012 @ 12:28 am

  8. […] “Unrepentant Marxist” Louis Proyect considered that Sullivan was caught between “Mammon and God, known in the academic vocabulary as […]

    Pingback by No to Mechanized Instruction instead of University Education: Occupy the Campuses! | Colonel Despard's Radical Comment — July 8, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

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