This is my response to Paul Tudor Jones II’s recent opinion piece in the Charlottesville’s Daily Progress regarding the Sullivan affair. Jones cites Jefferson’s famous remark, “God forbid should we ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” I take this as a point of departure for addressing some of the underlying issues that have characterized the debate, such as it has been, between those who would seek market-based changes at the University of Virginia and those who would preserve the integrity of the academic mission. The views expressed here are of course my own and not those my employer, the University of Virginia.
Not all change is equal. Thomas Jefferson’s quip about revolutions every twenty years was directed at political institutions, not educational ones, and in no small part because the former are so highly corruptible. Colleges and universities are among the most persistent institutional forms ever invented, outlasting governments, churches, and certainly corporations, the mayflies of social organization. Oxford University, from one of whose colleges UVa takes it colors, has been around for nearly a thousand years, outlasting bloody royal wars, foreign invasions, and political revolutions that leveled buildings, elite families, and ecclesiastical institutions. Universities are built for the long haul — they are precisely not to be treated as corporations. They do not have “business models.” They are constituted by internal traditions which evolve through their engagement with the more volatile political, religious, and economic institutions that surround them.
From this perspective, departments like Classics and German — apparently singled out as candidates for elimination in conversations to save money at Virginia — are by no means obscure or marginal. They certainly were not to Jefferson, who had the highest regard for languages and who chose to build the University on a classical foundation, both architecturally and curricularly, when he could easily have turned to more contempory sources (as did, for example, Franklin and Benjamin Rush). It is not an historical curiosity that the Rotunda is a variant of the Roman Pantheon, and that later, a statue of blind Homer was erected facing the Rotunda from across the Lawn. These symbols represent Jefferson’s desire to connect the past with the present, and to adapt ancient cultural forms to modern circumstances. They are just the more obvious symbols of an educational framework that traced its lineage to both the European Englightenment and the more ancient image of englightenment expressed in Plato’s allegory of the cave. This framework was for its time, and continues to be today, both innovative and historically grounded. Call it adaptive traditionalism, the distinctive contribution of Jefferson to American culture.
In Jefferson’s vision, the University is a place for the reinvention of tradition, for change that is forward-looking, practical, and grounded in ancient traditions that we might today think of as the genomes of our culture. Departments like Classics are central to this vision, even if the general study of Latin and Greek has been supplanted by other subjects. Not only because they represent the ancient roots from which our universities grow, but because we still need people who have read Plato and Cicero in the original, and who can reinterpret their works to succeeding generations of leaders, both political and economic — who would benefit from studying works like The Republic more than The Art of War. But as important, such departments are parts of a larger curricular whole which cannot be segmented without losing value.
Of course, universities must be sustainable, and this is the crux of the “existential threat” that Virginia and ssytems of public higher education in America as a whole face. The challenges are many and urgent, from declining contributions out of the governments that appoint their boards, to the possible collapse of an education bubble, to the threat and opportunity posed by recent successes of online educational models. In meeting these challenges, we face another misconception, one not as broad and pervasive as the public’s misrecognition of the humanities and liberal arts, but local to Virginia. It concerns the core of UVa’s identity. One reads in Jones’s opinion a laudable concern to measure the success of Virginia not against its peer state institutions but by the best schools in the country, in particular the Ivy League schools. Here Jones expresses a desire to pursue excellence, not mere parity. In doing so, he shows his cards as both a member of the business leadership class, for whom the “good to great” narrative has become a commonplace, and a University of Virginia alum, who strongly believes that his alma mater is, if not an Ivy, a Public Ivy, as Faulkner famously described it.
As a University of Virginia alum myself, I have always enjoyed this designation and the truth behind it. It is one of the reasons I chose to attend the school, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student. But as a former employee of Princeton University, where I spent eight years working to develop a digital humanities presence there, I believe that it is somewhat misguided to think of Virginia in this way. Virginia is not an Ivy and we should not aspire to be one; at least, we should not slavishly adopt the Ivies as our model of success. We differ from them in terms of both money and mission. Schools like Harvard and Princeton have endowments in the tens of billions and undergraduate student populations half the size of Virginia’s. At Princeton there are departments with endowments rivalling those of small liberal arts colleges. Virginia will never fit this profile. This is because its mission is different. For one thing, the Ivies still serve the wealthy and are club-like in a way that a state university, with a mandate to serve its local citizens, should not be. For another, and ironically in this context, the Ivies are much more invested in preserving their monopoly on prestige than public institutions are. They are, as a result, culturally resistant to taking certain risks, as I witnessed in the case of digital scholarship — recent initiatives to put courses online notwithstanding.
But if Virginia is not an Ivy League school, nor is it a typical American state university. It emphasizes undergraduate education, is relatively small, and is Ivy-like in some of the areas that matter most. For example, at Princeton I frequently heard the following joke. Question: “Why doesn’t Princeton have a business school?” Answer: “Because Princeton is a business school.” This is a joke that I fear many business school graduates would not get. It has at least two readings. The cynical one is that students at Princeton want most to make money, and end up on Wall Street in dispropionate numbers. But as a fellow of Matthey College and lecturer in anthroplogy, I acquired a diffrent reading: students, although of course taking courses in finance, realize that courses in Greek literature or Roman history or Tibetan religion are not only interesting, but edifying and productive of the best qualities that leaders can possess, and students know this. These qualities are things like wide cultural literacy and historical consciousness, an understanding of the concepts of justice and beauty, an ability to read and write in long form, a respect for and willingness to engage with divergent points of view, and the ability to make and justify executive decisions in the face of criticisms by smart people. These traits and skills are developed from on-going discussions that take place both inside of and outside of the classroom, centered around great ideas found in history, literature, and philosophy. And they are precisely the traits that students acquire at Virginia, either as students of the College, or as students of the professional schools taking courses in the College.
But there are other areas where the Ivies must envy Virginia and other elite public institutions. Those paying attention to the transformation of academia by technology will note that the most interesting models and perspectives — from the point of view of academia, not Wall Street — are emerging in an area that is being called the digital humanities. Here, scholars and students combine deep cultural knowledge — from fields like history and English, as well as classics and German — with the pursuit of new models of research, collaboration, teaching, and publication. These models derive from long standing work with digital text (dating back to the late 1940s) coupled with the adoption of social media as platforms of participation, methods derived from the scientific engagement with big data and visualization, and other technologies like virutal worlds. Here, something old, indeed ancient, and something new, very new, is being combined to form a powerful synthesis for the twenty-first century university, and it is happening at places like Virginia, Illinois, Nebraska, Maryland, UCLA, and George Mason, where flourishing digital humanities centers have been established. In this area, the Ivies are playing catch up.
If Virginia wants to achieve greatness and to emerge from these dark economic times on a sustainable footing, it will do so not by destroying its strengths in the name of some vague, fearful notion of change and a misplaced principle of strategic dynamism (which historians will recognize as something very close to the divine right of kings, power unchecked by a constitution). It will do so by taking the long view, investing in the University’s core strengths, and by focusing on its mission to educate its students as both professionals and citizens, even as it builds out its research infrastructure and strives to bring in star faculty. And, hopefully, in following this path, the University will be guided by a deep sense of its own identity, as an exemplar of the adaptive traditionalism embodied by both Jefferson and the digital humanities.