Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Corporate Mindset Is Taking Over Higher Education

A small, public university in Alabama made a major decision last week, and it illustrates an alarming trend in higher education.

The University of Montevallo, which sits in Shelby County about 30 miles south of Birmingham, is a liberal-arts school with an enrollment of about 3,100 students. The school had been searching for a new president for several months and announced last week that it had two finalists: a woman with solid credentials in teaching and administration, and a man with a strong background in . . . fund-raising.

Guess who got the job.

John W. Stewart, vice president for institutional advancement at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, is the new Montevallo president. The runnerup was Maravene Loescheke, president of Mansfield University in Pennsylvania.

Loescheke has extensive classroom experience and reportedly is highly regarded by students and faculty members. But my guess is that she never had a serious shot at the Montevallo job.

Stewart is credited with increasing total fund-raising from $1 million to $22 million in just two years at Flagler. (How do you do that, by the way? By robbing banks?)

When I read about the two finalists in the paper, I made a bold prediction to Mrs. Schnauzer. She can tell you that my batting average on predictions is only slightly above baseball's famed "Mendoza line," but I was confident about this one.

"If the fund-raising guy doesn't get the Montevallo job, I'll strip off my clothes and run naked through downtown Birmingham at high noon," I said.

"Whatever makes you happy," Mrs. Schnauzer said, without looking up from the daily listings for Home & Garden Television (HGTV).

Birmingham residents will be delighted to hear that I won't be running naked through downtown--at least not because of anything related to the University of Montevallo.

How was I so sure that this charming little Alabama school would go with the moneymaking "rainmaker" for president? Well, I spent 19 years working at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), which could be called exhibit A in the development of the "corporate university."

UAB was built by people like Dr. Joseph Volker, Dr. Tinsley Harrison, and Dr. S. Richardson Hill, who had an inspiring vision for a comprehensive urban university in a city that had been wracked by racial tension and backward thinking. Those leaders--along with many outstanding faculty members, researchers, and students--turned UAB into a stunning success story.

But in recent years, the school has been taken over by corporate hacks who have the vision of a bat and the ethics of a Bush-era CEO.

Now, I believe in the importance of development in higher education. I spent my time at UAB in various areas of what was called "institutional advancement." But when the fund-raising tail starts wagging the educational dog, ethics can be the big loser.

Just consider my personal story at UAB. I decided to write a blog, with my own time and resources, about a matter of significant public concern--the corruption of our justice system, in Alabama and beyond. Evidence suggests that the content of my blog hit too close to home for someone in our state's political hierarchy, so that person (or persons) pressured UAB President Carol Garrison to concoct a bogus reason to fire me--possibly applying some pressure to the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, for good measure.

UAB presidents like Joe Volcker or Dick Hill would have told such an interloper to, in so many words, "go to hell." Carol Garrison, however, has no spine and weak ethics--and she went along with it.

That's one mini example of what we might call the "Enronization" of higher education in America. And Carol Garrison is one of many "Ken Lays" running once proud institutions into the ground.

Is it a coincidence that UAB in recent years has been beset with fraud, extensive human-resources problems, layoffs, and the loss of numerous star faculty members? I don't think so.

The UAB administration, under Garrison, seems to go out of its way to hire deans who allegedly bring in money but have little discernible management skills. Consider Doreen Harper, the current dean of the School of Nursing at UAB. When longtime dean Rachel Booth retired several years ago, UAB had any number of excellent candidates for the job already in the school. But it decided to go all the way to the University of Massachusetts Worcester to hire Harper, reportedly because she was adept at bringing in grant money. What kind of human-relations skills does Harper have? Numerous sources have told Legal Schnauzer that interacting with Harper is like trying to have tea with a wolverine.

Or consider Robert Rich, dean of the School of Medicine. He was hired to much fanfare from Emory University, mainly because of his reputation for securing grant funds. A few months back, Rich quietly stepped down as dean amid multiple problems--research fraud, Medicare fraud, discrimination lawsuits, gross mistreatment of international medical graduates, and so on. Rich apparently couldn't be bothered with such problems because he was so busy looking for grants. I guess Rich stepped down in order to spend more time with his family.

It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years at the University of Montevallo. My guess is that valued faculty members will become disenchanted and look elsewhere for work, longtime employees will be run off, the work environment will suffer, alumni support will shrink, and genuine learning for students will decline. Also, look for a rise in discrimination lawsuits--legitimate ones.

But hey, the new president can bring in big bags of money. And that apparently is all the Montevallo board of trustees really cares about.


UntiringLawPerson said...

I can't believe what I hear sometimes. How could they possibly choose Stewart over Loescheke when she has such high credentials? It's certainly obvious that the students aren't the priority there.

Anonymous said...

Very sad for the University of Montevallo. You aren't the first person to relay this sentiment either. We always hoped Montevallo would be different, and yet here we are.

Anonymous said...

What you write about UAB's precipitous decline under Carol Garrison and Eli Capilouto is, unfortunately, true. UAB's true pioneers like Volker, Harrison, Hill, and you could add Scotty McCallum must be appalled at the mess that UAB has become all the way around.

James Greek said...

Dumbest decision I have seen since UAB passing over Bernie Machen!

Anonymous said...

You know, at this point, it's almost 2 1?2 years later, and I think this article is in need of some updating!

If I didn't call Montevallo home, I think I'd be willing to accept the predictions of this article on their rhetoric alone. However, I've seen two years of civic activism help turn what could have been unsustainable development into the best form of smart growth. This growth has given UM the only student-supported fun for sustainable, environmentally-sound investments in the state of Alabama public college system, a solar-powered, energy-neutral facility Supported by the Alabama Power Company, and has helped to bridge the gap between our campus and community through a thriving and decidedly unique Service Learning Department.

I'm not saying things couldn't have gone badly- what I'm saying is, regardless of past occupation, when faced with the requests of his constituency, the man embraced them with a degree of leadership that worked.