UVA June: Dragas just a tool in right-wing 'reform'
By Peter Gunter
Three months after Teresa Sullivan was fired and rehired as President of the University of Virginia, concerned people are still searching for an explanation to what seemed like a rash and arbitrary act. The lack of specifics in Rector Helen Dragas’ repeated justifications– the need for “change” and “strategic dynamism”– only fuels the demand for more concrete explanations.
To many, what happened at UVA in June seemed an isolated event, the result of a few business people trying to impose a corporate-style takeover of a state institution. This view is only partially correct. The Sullivan affair makes a lot more sense when understood in the context of the actual corporate takeover of American public education that has been underway for at least a decade. This takeover involves a carefully coordinated strategy to redirect the flow of public money into private firms while controlling politicians (and occasionally the media) to accomplish this goal.
Let’s start with the money. Amidst her vague explanations for ousting Sullivan, Dragas was clear about one thing: state funding has declined precipitously. In her 10-point "right thing, the wrong way" memo, Dragas noted that state spending has been cut from $15,000 to $8,300 per UVA student since 2000. Virginians have questioned why the General Assembly won’t restore the money, noting that neighboring states Maryland and North Carolina continue to spend, per student, up to three times as much.
Across the country, students have turned to private lenders. Since 1999, according to The Atlantic, education debt has increased by 511 percent, with the average student now shouldering a load of $25,000. With the prospect of widespread default, economists fear this could cause the next great financial crisis.
With that looming, one might think that government and Wall Street would be working together to curtail student debt. The reality is exactly the opposite, and it may stem from the highly profitable for-profit university industry. One of the biggest corporate owners of for-profit universities is Education Management Corporation, or EMC. When Goldman Sachs bought a major stake in EMC in 2006, the firm's private universities immediately turned their admissions offices into sales-driven boiler rooms. Longtime admissions staff were replaced by high-pressure sales teams who, according to a fraud complaint filed by the Justice Department and four states, utilized coercive phone scripts to convince prospective students that loans could be easily repaid after earning their degree.
In spite of the massive debt that private universities are creating, conservatives want to open the door to more private universities. This will supposedly force public universities to become more competitive by cutting liberal arts programs, replacing tenure with merit pay, and adopting online education– reforms that Sullivan was accused of failing to speedily embrace at UVA.
The need for such reforms may seem inevitable in a bad economy. Less inevitable, however, are the roles played by backstage influencers. Ten to fifteen years ago, American higher education seemed the envy of the world. Since then, right-wing think tanks, including the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, have redirected the conversation away from state defunding by claiming that universities are failing due to wasteful overhead, unproductive tenured professors, and the teaching of liberal ideology.
Never mind the stark reality on most campuses these days of stagnant salaries and an increasing reliance on adjunct faculty who receive low wages and no benefits. The right-wing think tanks remain silent on state defunding because the goal– born of the belief that a private enterprise is always superior– is starving the beast.
At first glance, the reams of op-eds, articles, and books the think tanks churn out appear driven by a populist concern for an educated citizenry and a strong economy. But the lack of any original scholarship at these institutes, their tendency to cherry-pick data from legitimate studies, and their failure to publish in peer-reviewed journals betray them as propaganda outlets serving the financial interests of the Wall Street financiers and industrialists who fund them.
Consider ACTA. One of the few people to publicly support Dragas for firing Sullivan was Anne Neal, president of ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The language Dragas used to justify firing Sullivan reads as if taken directly from ACTA’s position papers. While the mission page of goacta.org speaks to idealistic goals of “higher standards,” "accountability," and “affordable education,” a more in-depth examination reveals discussions about the proliferation of courses straying from the Western canon, the undue influence of Marxist professors on campus, and the need for a balance of conservative teachings.
What the ACTA website fails to mention is the name of key supporter Charles Koch, who, with brother David, has amassed a $60 billion fortune, largely from oil and coal. In 1980, David Koch stood as vice-presidential candidate for the Libertarian party on a platform of eliminating myriad government institutions including the public school system. Having failed in that direct political effort, the brothers have turned to working behind the scenes by funding the Tea Party, climate-warming deniers, and groups like ACTA.
ACTA appears to be an effective investment for the brothers. According to a recent email blast to supporters, “ACTA is defining the national conversation on higher education.” Whenever Neal appears on discussion panels in print and TV, one might suppose that the ACTA is a grassroots group of university trustees. However, like UVA's board, ACTA's board is loaded less with academics than industrialists. It even includes hard-right icon and former Attorney General Ed Meese. Neal herself has never been an academic or a trustee. Instead, she is a lawyer whose higher education credentials rest primarily on writing a book entitled Reforming the Politically Correct University.
Even ACTA’s mission is beset with contradictions. Why, for instance, would ACTA decry failing standards in public education– and then vigorously lobby to change the laws that govern the accreditation boards that uphold the standards? Why indeed? Because for-profit universities need accreditation to tap into federal student loans and grant money.
In addition to the six-figure sum they gave him, the Kochs have also enthusiastically promoted Governor McDonnell as a future presidential candidate by repeatedly inviting him to speak at their semi-annual confabs. Such effusions from the Koch brothers are rare but understandable in light of the governor’s extreme right-wing stands on issues like offshore drilling, school vouchers, and privatizing state agencies.
Governor McDonnell probably had more to do with Sullivan’s firing than his terse public statements might suggest. The governor’s post-debacle reappointment of Dragas speaks volumes about their political alignment. Shouldn't any leader of UVA seek greater state funding? Dragas seems content to support a budget driven by the governor’s absolutist pledge never to raise taxes—the same pledge that top lobbyist Grover Norquist has gotten every Republican in Congress to sign. And who is it that funds Grover Norquist in this effort? Again, the Koch brothers.
In many ways, the privatization of American higher education is following the path of public K-12 education. Over the past decade, education companies like Pearson (which now owns the software firm that caused a million-dollar debacle for Albemarle) have reaped huge profits through sales of standardized testing, textbooks, online education, and teacher evaluations. When you were a child, you may have gazed at the name on the spine of your textbook and seen the names of competing companies like Addison-Wesley, Allyn & Bacon, Macmillan, Silver Burdett, and Scott Foresman. Today, they're all owned by Pearson.
In 2000, Goldman Sachs served as advisor and lead underwriter in Pearson's acquisition of National Computer Systems, a deal that gave it a near monopoly on testing programs. Since then, Pearson has made billions from the standardized testing launched by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. Pearson lobbyists worked tirelessly to pass the Act and have continued to lobby state legislatures– which have slashed funding for libraries, arts, lunches, and sports– to ensure spending on standardized testing.
As state money is pushed from schools to corporations, the propaganda machine continues to beat the drum of school failure that is now being measured by standardized tests. The right wing continues to advocate for vouchers and charter schools, despite prominent studies that disprove charter schools’ success in raising the overall level of education achievement. What charter schools have been effective in accomplishing, however, is destabilizing teacher unions, lowering teacher pay, and building Republican control over school budgets.
One of the most contentious battles is taking place in New York City, where a non-profit group called StudentsFirst, having seen some successes in a few impoverished areas, is leading a citywide charter school movement. A counter group, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, claims that StudentsFirst is a political effort, pointing to the fact that Students First is funded by New York City’s wealthy elite, and that the founder, Michele Rhee, has sought strategic assistance from none other than Mitt Romney's Bain Capital to mount her assault on the NYC school system.
It’s no coincidence that two of the major supporters of StudentsFirst, Paul Tudor Jones and Peter Kiernan, were involved in the firing of Sullivan. Dragas reportedly pre-informed Jones who penned an op-ed telling us to be “elated,” and Kiernan bragged of his role (before quickly resigning from the Darden School’s governing board). In his book, Becoming China’s Bitch, Kiernan acknowledges the increasing power of think tanks and lobbyists, but he claims to be a “radical centrist” in a world where the Brookings Institute is as far to the left as the American Enterprise Institute is to the right. Kiernan rails against teacher unions and exorbitant six-figure school board pensions but says nothing about his long tenure at Goldman Sachs, how the company helped transform American education, or whether he faced any moral dilemmas as he amassed his own ten-figure fortune.
Although Sullivan and Dragas have put on brave faces of reconciliation, the issues that divide them remain as deep as the party divisions that have split the nation and immobilized the U.S. Congress. Yes, American education is in financial crisis; and, yes, there are important debates about the quality of public education, the distribution of tax dollars, and the role of online education. But I doubt that we can have an honest debate as long as the conversation, the laws, and the politicians are controlled by the one percent.
Peter Gunter is a local writer who graduated from UVA in 1981, debt free.