OPINION: Business interests, academia and the fiscal realities of contemporary education

Academia and business, those star-crossed lovers, locked horns in two major educational crises this past year. First, the University of Virginia was thrown into turmoil when their Board of Visitors suddenly and brazenly fired and subsequently rehired the university president who, up to that point, had served less than two years. The second catastrophe came this past week in Chicago when negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union and the mayor dissolved into a full-on strike by the teachers, leaving nearly 400,000 students out of school. Before we delve into the hindsight-enhanced “what can we learn at Mason?” questions, it is necessary to first break down each case. While the two scenarios are quite different, each represents the manifestation of a greater debate within education policy, specifically between the aims of educational values and fiscal realities.

What the Washington Post called the “U-Va. Upheaval: 18 Days of Leadership Crisis” was the culmination of months of telephone calls, emails and backroom management on the part of the leadership of their Board of Visitors and, allegedly, high-profile donors, alumni and administration officials. The conflict began on June 8th when the rector of the BoV, Helen Dragas, met with President Terry Sullivan to inform her that the BoV was prepared to vote, with a 15 out of 16 majority, to force Dr. Sullivan to quit. The force-out initially appeared certain, only to turn the tide and build momentum for Dr. Sullivan and the pro-Sullivan forces—the students, faculty and alumni loyal to her. This shift in direction began with just a few individuals—namely, the Faculty Senate, Student Council and the student-run Cavalier Daily—asking questions about the process and reasoning behind Dr. Sullivan’s ouster. Two weeks and thirty faculty members, ten local politicians, a U.S. Senate candidate, multiple major donors and one former university president later, the BoV unanimously reinstated Dr. Sullivan. For better or for worse, the coup d’etat had failed, and President Sullivan and Rector Dragas remain as leaders of the University of Virginia.

Two months later came Chicago. A fight over teacher evaluations and salary between the Chicago Teachers Union and the Mayor’s office has spilled out of the schools and onto the streets. More than 26,000 teachers and paraprofessionals have picketed the streets of Chicago after negotiations failed the evening of September 9th. Although most of the nearly 400,000 students currently on extended summer vacation may be enjoying the break now, families, local social organizations and the police are scrambling to find something for these kids to do before things turn ugly. As this ordeal is still ongoing, it is hard to assess exactly who is responsible for what. So far the facts suggest that Mayor Rahm Emmanuel wanted to shift teachers salaries to reflect teacher evaluations, promising higher salary increases in the long run (16% over four years). This eventual raise would be in exchange for delayed increases in the short run and teacher evaluations playing a more prominent factor in those increases. In the words of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, “[Mayor Emmanuel] wanted to make major changes in Chicago Public Schools and wanted to do it quickly…but changes of that kind of magnitude need to be done collaboratively and correctly, not just quickly.” The pro-teacher (or pro-union, depending upon your affiliations) sides are arguing the Mayor acted irrationally and unnecessarily fast; the Mayor’s office maintains he is merely bringing fiscal realities into the education policies of Chicago.

Even as we take time to digest these events, the comparisons between the two have become evident. First and foremost, a fight between policy-makers and policy-executers spilled out onto the lawns of education over money and fiscal challenges. These budget disagreements centered on the allocation of resources within the context of education policy in a limited setting. Second, these disputes manifested into physical protests—800-1500 individuals (depending on whom you ask) at UVA and 26,000 in Chicago. While both sides held power in the struggle, only one was powerfully visible in the number of vocal supporters. That is not to say the louder side was right—rather, that that side was simply more visible.

A third comparison is how the national discourse on education has shaped these two incidents into events and characters larger than themselves. The Washington Post saw in UVA a struggle between the “deliberative scholar” versus “the hard-charging business executive”; in Chicago, traditional education values versus contemporary realities. In essence, both have come to represent a conflict between business and academic philosophies for the direction of education in the 21st century. Both share the common goal of teaching students and recognizing fiscal limits and the subsequent conflict that can arise from the interaction of these goals.

What can we, here at George Mason University, take from these incidents? After years of unprecedented tuition hikes, a dearth of faculty salary increases and an emerging vision as a “global university,” Mason faces the same challenges that threw leadership in UVA and Chicago into chaos. No one hopes we experience the same level of animosity, yet the concern remains how our University, like every other educational institution at every level in the country, will address the pressures of global aspirations and fiscal realities.

Can we go global as students drop out due to college loan costs? Can the University internalize these costs at the same time it strives to be a regional and national research powerhouse? Are these issues over the allocation of resources or are there deeper values in conflict here? Can Mason stay true to the inherent values and purpose of an educational institution as it seeks to capitalize on online solutions? Can the nomenclature “George Mason University” remain aggregate as campuses become physically and virtually different?

One silver lining of these two crises is that they have encouraged discussion and raised the difficult but necessary questions. In asking these questions, I am not implying what the answers should be. Likewise, I am not suggesting that the University faces the threat of a mass strike or protest. Rather, I hope to cast the questions and realities that we face into a national context in the hopes that these questions spur discussion. I do not know the answers to these questions; however, it is a conversation I look forward to as the Board of Visitors, Dr. Cabrera and the many external and internal actors of the University collaborate over the next year in the pursuit of our new “vision.” 

Opinions expressed in this column are solely the beliefs of the writer. 

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