More from UVA

In case people don’t get to the bottom of the long comment stream on Jon’s post, William Wulf’s resignation from the faculty at UVA has been getting a lot of attention in certain circles.   I can’t imagine a better illustration of the problem the hard-headed business types on the Board of Visitors are bravely trying to solve, which is the failure of pointyhead intellectuals to get with the Darden Program.

First, Wulf (and Jones)  are very expensive.  For what Virginia is paying them, it could hire a whole batch of adjuncts who could fill many more seats in courses, especially required courses where the students don’t complicate the marketing task by demanding to actually learn anything important.  It could also hire a roomful of hungry assistant professors and post-docs who would publish, in total, lots more pages of research.  Just as there’s no problem finding students to fill seats, there’s no constraint of journals to accept these papers; I get invitations from actual journals I’ve never heard of and no-one reads to write something – anything – all the time. Production is paid bottoms in seats (real or virtual) and word count on paper (real or virtual); they’re easy to measure and the duty of the university is to get as many of each as possible as cheap as it can. Helen Dragas understands this and for some reason Wulf and Jones don’t, and that’s just how it is.

Second, there is no evidence they are providing any service to the university’s overall reputation on core measures: it’s telling that in his letter, Wulf cannot name a single football or men’s basketball starter who was recruited to UVA by himself or Jones, not one!  If they’re not advancing the mission, self-deportation is exactly in order, and their resignation is a badge of honor for the Visitors.

The selfless and courageous behavior of the Board don’t get no respect in quarters I frequent, perhaps because they tried to let their actions speak for them, but I’m happy to say they have now overcome their natural and admirable modesty and put forth a deathless, priceless manifesto of purpose and intentions.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

14 thoughts on “More from UVA”

  1. Helen Dragas may be a fool, but she’s no maverick. The problems of UVa are the problems of every university. I would define the essence of it as increasing vocationalism. Vocationalism has around forever: the medieval universities produced physicians, lawyers, and theologians. Liberal arts came late to the game. However, the flourishing vocational fields of the postwar era were either postgraduate (law, medicine, business) or at least academically rigorous (engineering, law,* medicine.)

    But now we have an increasing number of crap undergrad vocational courses in the curriculum: business, communications, kinesiology, and whatnot. If you’re going by student demand or alumni contributions, these fields are the future. I don’t think that business and communications can be the intellectual core of anything that resembles a university, because they don’t draw much on intellect. But that’s what’s happening. And this is the problem that Dragas is bringing to light.

    *You can argue with law as a rigorous discipline. But it is worth pointing out that Mitt Romney finished in the top 5% of his MBA program, but only the top third of his law school class.

    1. Surely a lot of these are the Gentleman’s Degree, kin to the Gentleman’s C? I refer to them as Suit Licences: degrees for people who want a piece of paper giving them the credentials to wear a suit to work every day for the rest of ther life, but who don’t much care about getting an education. In our society you need a college degree to work in many offices, but – while obtaining a college degree proves something about our ability to behave, to weather the application process, to write papers and exams that aren’t wholly incomprehensible, etcetera – there’s little in a college education itself that’s likely to be directly applicable to the needs of the office.

      1. I’d like to take the opposite position, just because I think somebody ought to …

        When I was a freshman there was a senior living next to me who was majoring in philosophy. He was VERY smart, and his family was quite wealthy, and he could do pretty much anything he wanted to. He chose to major in philosophy. I asked him why; what did he intend to do with a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy? He told me he had already gotten early admission to Harvard Medical School, but once he took all the required prerequisites for his career education, that left him plenty of time to get a “real education;” time that would be in mighty short supply in the next ten years. I admired him a lot, and 53 years later I still think that was a pretty darned good answer.

        Perhaps there is some percentage of those folks getting a Suit License because the value of the A.B. in the marketplace is simply for signaling, but the value of the education is far greater.

        1. I have tremendous respect for the study of the liberal arts, and for the brilliant, dedicated people who devote part or all of their lives to them. Communications and Business I’m more skeptical of, as usually taught, but I’ll readily agree that both are unquestionably worthy of study. But it happens to be the case that at my (enormous state university) alma mater there were any number of terrific students, and at least an equal number of enrollees there to get what I’ve called a Suit License. Scared off, rightly or wrongly, by the perceived rigor of the hard sciences, these people congregated in the English and the Communications departments, majors that wound up functioning as a lowest-common-denominator bachelor’s degree. The faculty and graduate students in the English department with whom I interacted were fantastic (I had less interaction with Communications, a degree that famously had no math or sciences requirements), as we’re some of the undergraduates – but they were buried beneath a human tide of disinterested, complacent mediocrities.

          I am not meaning in any way to disparage these fields of study, nor the people truly dedicated to them – but those people are often a distinct minority of the people purporting to study them at the undergraduate level.

          1. Depending on how you define “communications”, it is entirely possible that communications is the cornerstone of liberal arts. In the medieval university, the courses of study were grouped as the Trivium and the Quadrivium. The Trivium consisted of Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric and was studied first. The Trivium consisted of communication, and specifically the nuts and bolts of communication. Grammar tells us how to combine symbols coherently; Logic tells us how to reason with symbols; and, Rhetoric how to transmit the meaning in the symbols to others.

            The Quadrivium came afterwards: Arithmetic, Music, Geometry and Astronomy. The idea inherent in this ordering is that there is no purpose in studying specific fields until communication is understood.

          2. Communication theory is indeed a fascinating and valuable field (both aspects of it, human communication and computer communication) and can be as hard a science as you want it to be. It touches on aspects of cognitive psychology, neurobiology (there’s a whole subfield of computational neuroscience), information theory, linguistics, and more. And it is relevant for a wide area of very real challenges, from marriage counseling to computer security.

            The problem is more that many undergraduate communication programs are de facto vocational programs for advertising and such that avoid a lot of the actual science parts.

            On the other hand, the situation in the hard sciences is not necessarily always better. For example, one can argue that some undergraduate computer science programs are little more than glorified programming courses (these are the ones that teach specific technologies aimed at current employer requirements, often ones that will be outdated in a few years, not computer science as a science). Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with a university providing vocational training, but when colleges are the primary providers of vocational training, that can have undesirable side-effects.

          3. Katja,
            I think you are confusing two different things. There are many valuable fields of study. But many of them are not suitable topics for core undergrad training. Undergrad majors in these fields are a waste of time.

            Anybody who benefit from–say–communication theory would first be well-versed in your basics, many of which are themselves posterior to math, philosophy, and other goodies. Very few of the people ready for thiswill be undergrads, although some juniors and seniors are capable of course work at the grad school level.

            Of course, there are many topics that are not suitable for any kind of academic training, at any level. Some of them are well worth learning, but not in an academic environment. I spent some of my most useful hours in grad school in the machine shop. Nobody thought of calling the machinist a “professor”, although he had a tremendous amount of wisdom to impart, and spent a lot of his time doing so. And some topics taught in school seem like a total waste of time. Apart from accounting (which can be learned in an academic environment), I fail to see what value there is in a business curriculum.

          4. Ebenezer,

            I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you (and Warren). I would consider Communication Theory to be too specialized a field for undergraduate study myself.

            I was simply coming to its defense in that I consider it to be a valuable science. Its problem is not a lack of rigor, but that — if studied at a scientific level — it is an advanced and also somewhat narrow subject. If you want to teach it at the undergraduate level, you have to water it down, I think.

            That said, I think that an introductory course about the basics of human communication would be valuable for most professionals and scientists in just about any field (which is why I was recently hawking Paul Watzlawick in reponse to Mark’s request for public policy books). And such a course could easily be taught at the undergraduate level and would also be of academic value. But I digress.

            I do also agree that too much vocational training is nowadays being done at colleges, training that doesn’t really fit well into an academic system (though I’m not crazy about the dual apprenticeship/university system in many continental European countries, either, as it seems to err too much in the other direction by instituting what feels almost like a caste system).

          5. Katya,
            I agree that Communications is a fascinating and important topic, and I see no reason it couldn’t be a wholly worthwhile field of study for a bachelor’s degree. I wouldnt be surprised if there were some undergraduates in Communications at my alma mater who were indeed delving deeply and seriously into the study of this important topic, and benefiting greatly by doing so. But I also know that at my alma mater the major was notorious because of its extremely lax requirements and easy courseload; the Communications majors I encountered weren’t majoring in the subject for any of the reasons you name, but because it was the easiest way to get their name on a diploma. If I have been unfair to the noble field of Communications, it is only because my alma mater was far more unfair to it, and threatened wholly to debase it,

      2. Thanks for the Suit Licence. Deserves to be added to Kieran Healy’s encomium to flame transitions in PowerPoint.
        Who said the art of satire is dead?

    2. You can argue with law as a rigorous discipline. But it is worth pointing out that Mitt Romney finished in the top 5% of his MBA program, but only the top third of his law school class.

      That’s what happens when page two of your brief says the opposite of what page one said.

    3. I don’t think that business and communications can be the intellectual core of anything that resembles a university, because they don’t draw much on intellect.

      I’ll disagree with this while acknowledging that the way we teach business (I know a lot less about the education in communications) is pathetic. Business can draw on the intellect, though you’d have to get rid of a lot of the crap that infests the schools along with the entire attitude of those that run them. We might well have to eliminate business schools and move the departments back into the broader university to accomplish this, but it could be done. It won’t be, of course, but it’s possible.

      I would also object to just tossing kinesiology, too. The fact that it is often used as a dumping ground for athletes doesn’t mean that there isn’t a real discipline there.

  2. You can make strong arguments for either a liberal arts curriculum or a vocational curriculum, and the sciences tend to be very rigorous with elements of both. With all due respect to those who make their living and spend their working energy in the academic world, the fact is that parents and students who pay for higher education are looking at a very consequential cost and want a tangible return. While I encouraged my daughter to consider a liberal arts education and to consider academically rigorous programs like the one I went to (and Mark), my wife’s question to her was always, “what are you going to college to study?” and the point of that question really was, what do you want to do for a living when you come out? While I always felt that was a decision you put off until well into undergraduate studies, if not later, the prevailing mode is that it is something that is of paramount consideration before you commit $200,000+ of the family treasure at a private college or $75,000 or so at an in-state public university.

  3. OK, I know you are snarking but…

    I left the university biz (which is what it is NOW) 15 years ago because it was obvious to me that education was not the primary driver.

    I am a product of a state university (undergrad AND grad degrees) and got a fabulous education there in the 70s. But that was before state universities decided to (over) emphasize the role of research. I don’t want to hire adjuncts; I want to hire full-time faculty who are committed to and rewarded for teaching undergrads. Let’s face it: it’s not research that the universities love; it’s the take of the top of the research grants. Once again it’s all about the benjamins.

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