Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Score one for academic freedom

Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and one of the most accomplished thinkers, writers, and inventors of his time, believed his crowning achievement was the fathering of the University of Virginia.

This week, UVA took an action that would make a father proud. It made a foolish mistake and then showed the wisdom to correct it.

Last week, in an action accomplished without due process and without explanation, the school's Board of Visitors, UVA's quirky name for its governing directors, fired University President Teresa Sullivan. What was supposed to have been a quiet display of raw power became anything but. Tuesday, faculty and students and their newspaper learned that they, too, had power.

No one had even suggested that President Sullivan had failed UVA in any way. She appears to have been let go because she questioned whether cheap technology can actually cut the cost of a college education. The business leaders who now dominate the board were not happy with her lack of enthusiasm. In business, a lack of enthusiasm can cost you your job.

UVA, like universities across the country, receives fewer public dollars each year as states slash budgets. Online instruction has been held up as the cost-effective solution that will allow cuts without compromising the quality of the degrees conferred.

Academic institutions are exactly the right places for theories like this to be researched and debated. At its best, academia fosters an environment of freedom rather than fear and intimidation. At least in this skirmish at UVA, fear and intimidation lost.

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