UVA’s Ouster: A Symptom of Our “Reboot” Culture

We seem to expect today's schools to power down and restart at a faster speed, but educational institutions don't work like machines

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Jay Paul / The New York Times / Redux

Ousted University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan walks through a cheering crowd on campus in Charlottesville, Va., June 18, 2012.

The ouster of President Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia — and the ensuing turmoil in Charlottesville — is not an isolated scuffle. It is a sign of what can happen when education succumbs to today’s reboot culture.

(MORE: University Uproar: Ouster of UVA President Draws Fire)

Just as we have become accustomed to restarting our smartphones and rebooting our computers when they don’t react immediately, we seem to expect today’s schools and higher-education institutions to simply power down and power up again at a faster speed. At U.Va., my alma mater, the governing board apparently thought it could push out a popular president, who had just arrived the year before, and make haste in some new though still unidentified direction. (They also opted to do this on a Sunday morning in June when most students were long gone for the summer and only three board members could attend.) In e-mails between board members in the months before the debacle, in which a high-ranking professor has already resigned and more are threatening to do so, it appears that leaders of the board wanted to sack Sullivan because they weren’t satisfied with the pace of change amid reports elsewhere of the need for major revamping in higher education. They also seemed anxious to be seen as innovators in online education, even though U.Va. is no stranger to online courses.

The reboot culture is pervasive in PreK-12 education too, where the past decade has brought us “turnaround” schools with turnaround specialists who are expected to fix low-performing schools quick, quick, quick or face public embarrassment and eventual ouster themselves. School district leaders, eager to look agile and responsive, strive to replace old teachers with new ones or pile on new initiatives that require educators to make 180-degree turns with little training and time to plan or absorb the new approaches. (I’ve seen these 180-degree turns firsthand; my children attend a public school that is in “corrective action” and is now, with our third principal in four years, under a “transformation plan” to improve.)

(MORE: Why Are The Rich So Interested in Public School Reform?)

The tricky part is that humans don’t quite work like machines, and educational institutions, last I checked, are made up of humans. We remember slights. We feel mistrust that affects how we work. We have been known to process information non-linearly. We do our best teaching and learning when we feel inspired.

No doubt, our country’s system of higher education and public schooling must change. It is disastrous for children — especially those from low-income families without resources — to simply sit in classrooms without being engaged and challenged, subjected to low, status-quo expectations year after year. Yes, my kids’ school, and teachers, will have to make significant changes to help our at-risk students. But we have to recognize that it matters how, not just if, those changes are imposed.

In colleges, faculty members need to recognize that they cannot teach today’s students the same way they taught 10 and 20 years ago. Even a college like U.Va., which has a strong endowment and envied national reputation, needs to adapt. So, yes, using online education and new communication tools is an imperative.

But innovation doesn’t arrive in a box. It isn’t something to unpack and plug in. Deep, impactful learning doesn’t happen overnight.  It evolves over time and is only as strong as the foundation on which it sits — a foundation that isn’t built in days or months but in years.

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Take elementary schools, for example. When children arrive in schools without good preschool experiences, they often struggle. Their struggles, coupled with struggling-but-often-ignored teachers, cascade over time. Their lack of achievement results in failing schools unlikely to genuinely “turn around” until teachers receive sustained, in-classroom training on their teaching methods; until children’s early learning is prioritized; and until people are given room and time to breathe.

College transformation won’t happen on a dime either. It requires long-term collaboration with faculty who will be ultimately responsible for how and what students are taught. Ex-president Sullivan, who called herself an “incrementalist,” is known for listening to academic leaders. In a strategy memo she wrote before her forced resignation, Sullivan recognized that entrepreneurial faculty are hampered by bureaucratic barriers she wanted to streamline. In a letter last week, she described how she asked deans to strategize their next steps. It’s no mystery, then, why 33 department heads have asked that she be reinstated. It appears that she was working with people as humans, not machines that need to reboot.