What Does UVA Need in a University President?

by James A. Bacon

For anyone following governance issues at the University of Virginia, Bill Ackman’s Twitter broadside against Harvard’s now dethroned president Claudine Gay and its governing board is must reading. Ackman, the hedge-fund manager-turned-activist who spearheaded Gay’s overthrow, identifies serious systemic problems at Harvard, from its ponderous DEI bureaucracy to a tuition policy that prices out the middle class.

Every one of the pathologies he describes at Harvard plays out at UVA (although, one can argue, in diluted form). Little of this is new to readers of the Jefferson Council blog, for we have been documenting the problems for two years now. But Ackman raises one point that we have not considered: What qualifications should a governing board look for in a university president?

The question might seem academic, but UVa President Jim Ryan is surely feeling nervous these days. As dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education before ascending to his position at UVA, he is a product of the same hyper-progressive Harvard culture as Gay. And Liz Magill, the University of Pennsylvania president who was sacked after her abysmal testimony before Congress, was Ryan’s hand-picked provost for UVa before she moved on to the Ivy League. Ryan is less politically tone deaf, to be sure, he is popular among UVA students and faculty, and he has said all the right things regarding free speech and institutional neutrality. No one in authority has publicly called for his resignation. Even the Jefferson Council, as critical as it has been of UVA under Ryan’s tenure, has taken no position on whether he should stay or go.

Nevertheless, it is worth asking the question, in light of the presidential defenestrations at Harvard and Penn, what should an elite university look for in a president?

Here’s what Ackman has to say.

I would suggest that universities should broaden their searches to include capable business people for the role of president, as a university president requires more business skills than can be gleaned from even the most successful academic career with its hundreds of peer reviewed papers and many books. Universities have a Dean of the Faculty and a bureaucracy to oversee the faculty and academic environment of the university. It therefore does not make sense that the university president has to come through the ranks of academia, with a skill set unprepared for university management.

The president’s job – managing thousands of employees, overseeing a $50 billion endowment, raising money, managing expenses, capital allocation, real estate acquisition, disposition, and construction, and reputation management – are responsibilities that few career academics are capable of executing. Broadening the recruitment of candidates to include top business executives would also create more opportunities for diverse talent for the office of the university president.

Furthermore, Harvard is a massive business that has been mismanaged for a long time. The cost structure of the University is out of control due in large part to the fact that the administration has grown without bounds.

UVA is a $4 billion institution, with an academic division (which we normally think of as the university) and a health system, each of which generate roughly $2 billion in revenue. Ryan is only the latest in a long line of UVA presidents with no expertise whatsoever in managing health systems. Governor Glenn Youngkin has appointed two board members — Douglas Wetmore and Stephen Long — with healthcare backgrounds and Attorney General Jason Miyares appointed a university council, Cliff Iler, who also has legal expertise in health-systems. Whether that is sufficient to provide useful guidance to UVA’s health enterprise, which faces intense pressure to grow in order to achieve economies of scale, is an open question.

UVa also is in the hospitality industry. It owns the Boar’s Head Inn, the Birdwood Golf Course, and the Forum Hotel at the Darden School. The university develops real estate to accommodate its growing research and academic functions. And, of course, the university manages major auxiliary business enterprises such as dormitories, food plans, and an athletic program.

It may or may not be fair to accuse UVa of being “mismanaged” from a business perspective. It is one of only two public universities in the country with a AAA bond rating. However, Virginia’s auditors of public accounts have identified material mis-statements in the health-system finances and, most recently, it was revealed that the McIntire School of Business was operating at a previously unrecognized loss.

There is abundant anecdotal evidence that UVA has engaged in a massive administrative hiring spree, most notably in the creation of a sprawling DEI bureaucracy. However, UVA data suggest that total employee head count has not increased much in recent years. It is worth digging into the numbers to see how employees are counted. UVA has engaged in significant outsourcing. Has head count remained stable only because it has off-loaded lower-level employees from the books through outsourcing as rapidly as it has hired more highly paid administrators? Or has UVA found genuine efficiencies that have allowed it to shrink staff over here while adding to it over there? A more assertive Board of Visitors may be able to find out.

It is difficult for alumni and other outsiders to appraise the job Ryan is doing because we don’t know what he is incentivized to do. His employment contract is public record, but the criteria used to award him a significant bonus is not. (We tried to obtain it through the Freedom of Information Act but were denied). He has excelled as a fundraiser — UVa is close to surpassing its $5 billion fundraising campaign goals way ahead of schedule — and that may be what he is being rewarded for. Is he being rewarded for achieving DEI goals? We don’t know. For boosting research funding? We don’t know. For controlling costs and holding down tuition?

We just don’t know.

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walter smith
walter smith
5 months ago

Ackman’s full statement – it is a LOOOONG read – should be read by all as he describes what happened to him when he opened up the hood and looked. He had no idea how bad the ideological environment was. I think this would be true of 99% of UVA alums who only get UVA Today and the UVA Alumni magazines – highly curated propaganda for the outside world. Meanwhile, inside the community, we have U Guides who only talk about slavery and eugenics and multiple departments and community “partnerships” that only preach the Woke “gospel.”

Ackman also condemns the Harvard Board…ahem… The appointment process is totally insular, just like all of the “independent” foundations, which are, in reality, controlled by the Ryan administration. Trying to get to the bottom of THOSE financials is hidden behind the “independent” fiction.

But the same comments about the Presidential qualifications should also apply to the BOV. Just being a big donor should not be enough, nor should checking the right “diversity” boxes. Serious institutional reform is urgently needed. The BOV is to SET POLICY, for the benefit of the Commonwealth. The President is to administer that policy. UVA is upside down and far-removed from its educational mission. It is betraying its Jeffersonian ideals. Free speech? A fig leaf. Honoring religious liberty? Nope. Honoring the greatest statement for freedom for the world in the Declaration? Nope he owned slaves and was a rapist (according to the U Guides and Woodson Institute).

What is happening at UVA is a disgrace. And a betrayal. And intentional.

Wahoo 76
Wahoo 76
5 months ago

I predict Ryan will be considered for the presidency at Harvard and/or Penn. It would be a good move for him, as he knows he will be facing challenges with the BOV next year. And a good move for UVA.

John Hunt, MD
5 months ago

Perhaps the most important things for a university president to have is ETHICS. Not just any ethics, but Jeffersonian ethics. Natural Law ethics. Nothing else ends up being good if the people are unethical.

walter smith
walter smith
5 months ago
Reply to  John Hunt, MD

And is why the Honor System is dead…
Marxism is antithetical to truth/Truth.

Jeff McKenna
Jeff McKenna
5 months ago

Ryan is also very involved in the ongoing discussion of the ACC and NCAA. Should the NCAA president’s proposal move ahead to create a new super division of well-funded programs who will directly compensate athletes, UVa will need to decide if it wants to go down that path. Or lead a charge of the remaining universities to refocus on academics over sports entertainment, and revitalize the student athlete. This will take a heavy duty business background to navigate the proper path.

Tony Medley
Tony Medley
5 months ago

Walter, Is the Honor System dead? I thought it had been re-resurrected.

Walter smith
Walter smith
5 months ago
Reply to  Tony Medley

As a practical matter, yes, it is dead. The Honor System has been under attack for a long time – reprehensibility, informed retraction, much legalism…
The recent vote I think was just to allow at some point the ability to kick someone out with various levels of punishment, in lieu of the single sanction.
However, if you talk to students, they will tell you cheating is pretty apparent. Further, the profs know it is going on, but know the actual Honor Council proceedings are water torture and take their own remedies. Cheating is very prevalent. I don’t know enough to say if it is “rampant.”
Stealing? Lawn rockers are chained… I don’t know – everything is so locked down compared to the wide open school I attended (1975-1984).
Lying? I think rampant. The DEI everywhere is a Gramscian Marxist, post-truth environment. Truth is relevant. That’s from the top. My favorite there is the oxymoronic “inclusive excellence.” Drives me crazy!

ConcernedUVAEmployee
ConcernedUVAEmployee
5 months ago
Reply to  Tony Medley

I think Honor is kind of a joke, unfortunately. I wish that were not true, but part of the problem is that staff (non-faculty) are never truly oriented to the Honor system, nor are they welcomed into “the community of trust.”

Also https://uvamagazine.org/articles/honor_up_close

Clarity77
Clarity77
5 months ago

Totally amusing to witness the vaunted Harvard DEI house of cards come crashing and burning down with its DEI poster child, Claudine, screaming racism!!! Nothing speaks so loud and clear as plagiarism when it comes to an intellectual fraud. And yes just as it is at UVA as to the BOV so it is with Harvard and its governing board as to choosing a president and ongoing oversight of the office.

What a spectacular embarrassment for Harvard and wokist “higher education.” I take small comfort that at least this did not happen at UVA. My VT brothers and friends would be besides themselves with laughter.

Now, the ancients knew well as to wisdom having a foundation in self awareness, but Harvard’s governing board lacking such will go blindly forward. Bet on it.

In the meantime, if you really want to dig deeper into DEI consider the following piece from one who is awake and not woke.
https://torrancestephensphd.substack.com/p/democrats-think-black-voters-are

But this is nothing new. Malcolm X called it out back in the 1960’s. I’ll follow shortly with the link.

Clarity77
Clarity77
5 months ago

Malcolm X on Claudine Gay.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alrxnLK9AxA

And if you are not a person of color no need for DEI, easy pivot to the use of fear. No surprise then that they would denigrate and attack the Father of our University, as he spoke such words as, “for here we shall NOT BE AFRAID to follow truth…”

And then if you happen to access the wisdom of the Bible as in 2 Timothy 1:7, well you are beyond deplorable, you are a damned Christian nationalist!

The left always amusing in their various roles. They can’t help but expose themselves time after time.