What Helen Dargas at UVa could learn from Rage Against the Machine

So unless you have been living under a rock, you’ve watched the media firestorm surrounding the firing of UVa President, Teresa Sullivan. There’s been a ton of writing on subject, including this shot from Siva Vaidhyanathan in Slate. Since then, University of Virginia rector, Helen Dargas, has been blathering on in various apologies in the media. People have used the episode to illustrate everything from corporate control over state institutions (shocking!) to the higher education “bubble”.

I have to admit, I don’t understand the idea of the ‘bubble’. I get that it’s possible that university educations cost too much and the financial value of a college education can fall…but hasn’t that already happened with all the youth unemployment?

States have already pulled back so much of their support for places like UVa I don’t even know why they are allowed to appoint overseers. It’s like me owning 7 percent of a company.

I know we’re all supposed to be trembling in our boots of the Mighty Republicans and their plans to reform to higher education, but what will really affect higher education are the demographic changes in the market–there aren’t going to be as many young Americans going to college any more–and income equality. When people don’t have any real wage growth, they can’t afford a lot of things. Like college for their kids. (Class warfare, class warfare, socialist! Even discussing inequality is UNAMERICAN, even if you are still discussing business). We’ve known this for some time: there’s a reason why places like Stanford and Harvard have been working so hard to re-enforce a global brand for their universities.

American higher education is changing, no doubt, but the University of Virginia was one of the select few of public universities–like Berkeley and Michigan–that was going to be able to survive state zero-funding of higher education. It wasn’t Ivy–but it was close enough that it could have weathered that change–yes, the change to becoming an entirely private institution–pretty well. It had its own pedigree, like Harvard—the touch of Renaissance conveyed by founder, Thomas Jefferson.

Dargas and her clumsiness damaged the brand. They took the shine off the place. Rage Against the Machine made a lot of money for a lot of people selling an anti-establishment image. Selling an anti-establishment image. Selling. What UVa has to sell is a great history, an amazing tradition, and a superb faculty.

Liberal arts, by the way, are important to that brand. There is a reason that Yale hasn’t ditched their classics department, and it’s not because classics professors are so darn powerful.

So instead of retaining that image, building on it, and ousting a president they didn’t like quietly, Dargas and her buddies ousted a popular president and now has the world looking at the UVa as the same management as the University of Phoenix. Brilliant move. I assume they had their business school golden boy all picked out. Good luck installing him cleanly now.

I’m not snobby, btw; the University of Phoenix serves a market niche, very well. But the UVa niche was different. Presidents come and go–marks on your reputation, in this world, are harder to erase. A public relations foible of the first order.