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Ouster of UVA president was justified -- Sullivan's dismissal highlights what's wrong with higher education today

Higher education is in crisis, and leaders like Teresa Sullivan, the recently dismissed University of Virginia president, bear a heavy burden of responsibility for not effectively leading.

Simply put, high-quality universities have become too expensive and increasingly inaccessible because their presidents and other top leaders have failed to recognize and address the challenges and opportunities posed to their institutions by new technologies.

The Internet, computers and collaborative software now offer universities transformative opportunities to leverage resources, reduce costs and potentially reach millions more students by combining less-expensive, on-line individual and group instruction with residential experiences that last less than the traditional four years.

Some elite institutions like Harvard, MIT and Stanford have experimented with online instruction but have not articulated their plans for potentially unconventional degree tracks. No doubt conflicted—how can they sustain their elite status if they become widely accessible—they behave as monopolists in direct conflict with the public interests.

It's been clear for some time that America’s great universities—elite private institutions and flagship state universities have become too selective. Admission standards exceed those necessary to cull high school graduating classes for students best able to profit from what they offer.

Too many well qualified applicants are turned away, because the US population has grown much more rapidly that the residential model of higher education can accommodate. Monopoly power permits these institutions to unnecessarily run up costs, charge unconscionable tuition and afford faculty cosseted lives, whose teaching and research is becoming increasingly less relevant and responsive to our society’s needs.  

Students are educated in ways today not much different than 50 or 100 years ago. Thanks to the Internet, communications and access to research materials are quicker and better, but too often the curriculum lags behind the breaking changes in the wider world. Worst of all, students who have spent four years getting a college education fail to acquire the agility needed to cope when they leave.

At the root of all this are the flawed performances of incrementalist presidents like Teresa Sullivan, who are more administrators than leaders—and the flawed governance models of universities.

Ultimately, Boards of Trustees hold the reins—they hire and fire presidents, but those processes sit atop a Platonic Democracy—where decisions both academic and business are made de facto, if not de jure, by committees.

From the bottom up, students evaluate professors—remember their evaluations are now used to help award tenure and mete out raises and faculty with lifetime tenure vote on the performance of chairmen, deans and so forth. Student and faculty assessments are blurred by obvious self interest.

Most large, successful organizations weigh subordinates views in evaluating leaders but in American universities this process has become wholly distorted and debilitating. Administrators rise from chair to dean and ultimately provost and president by pleasing faculty and sometimes students, who sit on selection committees. They proceed into the highest ranks by pacifying members of what are essentially non-profit boards, and at state institutions, politicians.

Anyone who has managed or sat on a non-profit board knows members don’t conduct themselves as they would in a business environment and will approve executive decisions they would not tolerate if their own money and futures were at stake.

Consequently, American universities please the immediate instincts of students—adolescents whose judgment is not fully formed—and faculty—who often chose the academic life to avoid the rigors of the marketplace and greet change with the same glee as owls do sunlight.

Academics that make it to the top—like Teresa Sullivan and other university presidents—rely heavily on consensus building processes that offer students and faculty a strong sense of involvement but do not yield decisions that best serve the long term interests of institutions or communities they were established to serve.

Dr. Sullivan was given fair warning that the University Board of Visitors was concerned about her performance and lack of vision about the cost and relevancy challenges facing her university and virtually all others, and offered the opportunity to table a strategy document.

Her May 3 strategy memo to the board simply lacked a coherent and effective plan to address those challenges at the University of Virginia.

The University of Virginia and state and nation it serves simply deserve better.

Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and widely published columnist. He is the five time winner of the MarketWatch best forecaster award. Follow him on Twitter @PMorici1.