Boar’s Head revisited
Students should pay attention to the problems in higher education running deeper than the Board of Visitors
The Board of Visitors met in Charlottesville Wednesday for the first time since it reinstated University President Teresa Sullivan — so read the headlines. In the absence of actual Board meetings we have cultivated mythologies, built narratives and made caricatures of human figures whose importance is secondary to the problems in higher education. Rector Helen Dragas should still resign, of course, or the General Assembly should deny her reappointment when able to do so in January. But even without her the issues would still remain.
It should not be forgotten that Dragas’ actions were morally wrong — regardless of her motivations. But to give her too much attention is to lose sight of bigger, more collective concerns. To have it be our highest priority that Dragas resign is to use the same grandiose logic she employed when forcing out Sullivan: the idea that changing one person could better a whole institution. Dragas overreached, utilizing too much power. But to make her a villain is to overlook that she is merely a rector.
More formidable are the issues we face, many of them deriving from the state and federal government. Faculty complain that their salaries have remained stagnant thanks to a state wage freeze in effect since 2007. Not only has the state decreased funding, but it has put limits on raising tuition. This leaves us in what Media Studies Chair Siva Vaidhyanathan calls a “philanthropy trap,” where the few we must rely on for donations designate the creation of certain programs and are granted disproportionate say.
Those are the fiscal concerns, measured in real dollars. There are also digital anxieties about online courses and academic copyright; big-picture questions about the worth of a college degree; and the old, existential struggles about what college should be all about.
And the students are nowhere in sight. An Honor Committee panel failed to fill up Tuesday. Many students sipped coffee or checked laptops in the South Lawn and failed to even pay attention to a panel grappling with these problems Wednesday in a room just adjacent. Faculty members, Board members, members of the administration — all of these groups quite busy themselves — have at least addressed the problems stalking our school while we sit out in the hallway.
Many of us — for whom life has been one long, resume build, up to and including this sentence — have known nothing in life but school. It’s not fair to assume we have profited: So far, we have paid for college without seeing returns and may question how much we have learned. But it’s undeniable that the education structure has shaped our lives in ways far more than academic, and it’s wrong for us to use such a system and look away when it faces collapse. So, do something: Read, write, think, etc. about these kinds of issues. Lest we forget, part of the Board’s rationale for ousting Sullivan in June may have been to avoid student reaction. And now they are here, and so are we.