As both Matt Yglesias and Atrios have pointed out, we seem to be living in an era when the ethical norms surrounding the conduct of business have reached all-time lows, and where all sorts of bad practices can be rationalized with principles like “profit maximization” or “shareholder value.” In essence, the marketplace is the place where everyone steals everyone else’s lunch, and where everyone must guard against their neighbor. Not a very productive arrangement, is it?
What I’ve noticed is that even in the face of widespread disapproval of such predatory, unaccountable behavior, the elites who run public entities like public universities and museums still insist on using this rhetoric to justify their decisions.
So what does a public university look like when it’s run for the purposes of “profit maximization” or “shareholder value,” to the point where Presidents or Boards are supposedly obligated to choose these kinds of values over the more traditional missions of the university, like the “pursuit of knowledge,” the “liberal arts” or even “educational effectiveness”?
It means that enrollments must always be maximized, “profitable” fields favored over the “unprofitable ones,” and the distinctions between the “non-profit” and “for-profit” institutions erased. This set of drastic changes is what the combined faculty, students, and alumni at UVA successfully protested against, and have beaten back, at least at this time. (And Siva Vaidhyanathan deserves enormous credit for his public role as an inclusive advocate for higher education at UVA)
It also seems to me that if the historical practices of the “for-profits” are any guide, any university run under these principles of maximization will quickly, and necessarily, begin to engage in duplicitous behavior: students will be promised one kind of education, and provided something very different. These schools’ profit-margin derives not from reputation, but from their ability to capture the most vulnerable students and educate them as cheaply–and as superficially–as possible. And the universities that do not care to run themselves this way will be competing with those who do.
In my view, what happened at UVA suggests the benefits of faculty publicly aligning their interests with those of their students, their parents, and especially, their institutions’ alumni. This made the BOV’s claim to represent the “public’s” supposed desire for “efficiency” and “strategic dynamism” risible, and it revealed the isolation of the Dragas faction of the Board from the rest of the university community.
There will always be multiple claims upon “the public,” and multiple claims to speak “for the public,” and faculty can help groups like students and alumni recognize how their own needs are being ignored in the drive to ever-greater efficiency. This seems to me the best lesson to take from the recent events at UVA.