Every year over the course of the summer, high school seniors cobble together a list of schools they plan to apply to. They consider academics and social life, location and school size, reputation and school culture, all in an attempt to find that elusive perfect fit. But recent scandals in a pair of the most storied public universities in the country — the University of Virginia (UVA) and Penn State — draw attention to another important consideration for future college students: What are the values and priorities of the administration and the trustees?
At UVA, controversy erupted after a popular president, Teresa Sullivan, was ousted by the board of trustees for not moving the school quickly enough to a hybrid model of education, one in which a greater proportion of the university’s offerings were made online. Sullivan wanted to make the changes from the bottom up, with the cooperation of students and faculty. The board wanted a quick, top-down change, in the style of a Fortune 500 corporation. In the end, Sullivan was rehired, and the board’s vision was effectively rebuffed. Indeed, donations plummeted after Sullivan’s ouster then shot up after she was rehired, which would seem to indicate supporters of the university prefer Sullivan’s approach to the board’s.
Why should any of this matter for incoming students? The priorities set by the administration can have a huge — and often rapid — impact on the culture and academics of a university. The top-down, corporate vision of administration, in particular, often leads to changes that might have been unfathomable a few decades ago, like when SUNY Albany recently cut its departments of French, Italian, theater and classics. What kinds of administration do you want at your school: one that will run the university in a more traditional fashion, keeping less popular departments alive in the spirit of intellectual inquiry? Or one that puts money where the students, essentially voting by course enrollment and majors, would seem to have the most interest in seeing it go? As budgets become tighter, expect to see battles like these play out again and again at universities across the country.
The Penn State scandal, similarly, offers us insight into the values of the administration and the trustees of the university. Sports — and especially football — quite simply came first. Before academics. Before anything. While Penn State will surely be held up as an example of collegiate-sports culture gone wrong, any student planning to apply to a school with strong Division 1 athletics would be well served to look into how that athletic culture impacts the academic and social fabric of the university. Do athletes receive special treatment? Are other departments shortchanged so athletics can prosper?
In short, what these scandals show is that a student should investigate not just the obvious factors in selecting a university — academics, social life, location, size and so on. Look at the factors that shape academics, that shape the university culture. Just as savvy job hunters will learn about the CEO and board of any company they consider working for, so too savvy students should learn what they can about the values of those in control of their education.