(The usual: This column, thanks to the syndication deal, appears here a week after its newspaper release)
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HIGHER EDUCATION FOR OUR COUNTRY
BY BOB FRANKEN
This is a stretch, but indulge me: As we take the Independence Day break and celebrate the work of the Founding Fathers, let’s focus on what else one of them, Thomas Jefferson, uh, founded. That, of course, is the University of Virginia, which he established in 1819.
We are probably tired of hearing how Jefferson must be rolling in his grave over all the turmoil seizing his scholarly haven. In contrast to his foresight, we’ve witnessed today’s shortsighted actions by the school’s governing board, largely a collection of corporate types.
How appropriate that the UVA teams are called the Cavaliers. “Cavalier” would definitely describe the board members’ attitude toward the unique realities and sensitivities of the academic community that they were treating like any other profit center.
By now we know that the crude attempts to impose their top-down management blew up in their faces. They tried to dump the university president, Teresa Sullivan, whom they suddenly, and with no public discussion. She dared to be collaborative and not a slash-and-burn team player who was not moving at the warp speed they wanted to speed into the “forefront of change.” But Sullivan made a triumphant return and ended up kicking sand in the bullies’ faces. They had to eat their so-called strategic dynamism, which is business-consultant gobbledygook for “Ready-Shoot-Aim.”
She was the defender of academic excellence. They were the anti-intellectual dictators, and when things blew up, they did what their types usually do when they mess up: They hired a so-called crisis-management firm that gets big bucks to put lipstick on their pig clients. This time, in a rare turn of events, there wasn’t enough lipstick.
Sullivan’s job is supposed be modernizing a flabby academic establishment that is dithering the institution into financial peril. But it’s a complex problem, requiring delicacy. Instead, some of the board members demanded simplistic heavy-handedness. They have gotten used to getting their way within their own world, where the only input they get is from sycophants.
They were so shocked when they encountered resistance, they folded. Still, their myopia provides sharp focus on the shortcomings of the corporate mentality. And that brings us to this year’s presidential race.
One of the mantras from the Mitt Romney camp is the constant refrain that Barack Obama is over his head when it comes to the economy, because he lacks Romney’s big-business experience. Does he mean the kind of tunnel vision that’s caused the financial crisis? Or the one at the University of Virginia?
Mitt is bordering on ridiculous when he asserts that “corporations are people.” Corporations are impersonal organizations scrounging for every buck. By definition they are authoritarian. The employees are cogs in the wheel. So are the communities where they headquarter until it’s more lucrative to move elsewhere.
In government, by contrast, moving requires consensus. Ramming something through means everyone stays stuck in place, still squabbling.
Corporations are the antithesis of democracies, which are supposed to give equal voice to all the competing constituencies. The business of business is profits, but government is there to protect the well-being of its citizen stockholders, all of them, from rich to poor.
We are called the UNITED States for a reason. “U.S. Inc.” won’t cut it. Efficiency is a wonderful aim, but it is not always achievable. Although many were incredulous, Virginia’s governor has chosen to reappoint the board leader who created the UVA debacle. Hopefully, she and her colleagues have learned how democracy is often inconvenient. It does get in the way of those who fancy themselves our rulers and American royalty. “The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provisions should be made to prevent its ascendancy.”
In case it wasn’t obvious, those are the words of Thomas Jefferson.
© 2012 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.