The tumult at the University of Virginia — with the sudden ouster of President Teresa Sullivan on June 10, and the widespread anticipation that she will be reinstated on Tuesday — reflects a low-grade panic now spreading through much of public higher education.
“Is it possible to be a successful president of a public university?” mused Mark G. Yudof, the president of the University of California. “I’m not willing to say these jobs are impossible, but these are very difficult times. You want to be more efficient, but you don’t want to make changes so fast that you endanger academic values and traditions and alienate the faculty. But you can’t go too slow, or you alienate the board and the legislature. It’s a volatile mix.”
Across the nation, it has been a rocky year for public university leaders: Richard W. Lariviere, the president of the University of Oregon, was fired in November, despite strong faculty support, after pushing aggressively for more independence from the state. Amid similar strains — but voluntarily — Carolyn Martin left her chancellor post at the University of Wisconsin to become president of the far smaller Amherst College. At the University of Illinois, a faculty mutiny helped spur President Michael Hogan’s resignation after less than two years on the job. And at the University of Texas this spring, there were rumblings that President Bill Powers was in danger after a clash with the board and the governor over his request for a tuition increase.
“Each situation is a little different, but the trend is apparent,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education. “The staggering reduction in financial support from the state puts a lot of pressure on campus. There’s increasing politicization of governance. And there are rising expectations that universities will transform themselves very quickly, if not overnight. Somehow, they’re supposed to achieve dramatic improvement in learning productivity and at the same time reduce costs by using educational technology.”