Bamboo Cyberdream

a panda wanders the electronic landscape

Waking Up

Note: this blog is usually about video games. This time it’s not. If you want to read about video games, skip this post. Similarly, if you like this post, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will like the rest of this blog. It is usually about video games.

I graduated from the University of Virginia, which was one of the first public universities anywhere in the world. I didn’t grow up in Virginia, but quickly came to think of U.Va. and indeed the entire state as my home. When I moved to the DC area from California, I first chose to live on the Virginia side, even though my work was in Maryland. The state and its flagship school are closely bound up in my present identity.

There’s not a whole lot I can add to the discourse surrounding the series of dramatic events that have unfolded in Charlottesville over the last few weeks. I have a journeyman’s interest in (and a much-less-than-journeyman’s knowledge of) business history and theory. I have no formal training or experience running a company, but I dive into books about the subject and drink in stories of what made certain companies rise and others fall. So when the phrase “strategic dynamism” was getting thrown around frequently in the commentary around Teresa Sullivan’s forced resignation, I did a bit of research on the subject to see what, presumably, the University was lacking.

(Note: I put only 1-2 hours of research into this subject, if I’m being generous. This time was also spent eating and being distracted by other things on the internet. I would not consider my knowledge of strategic dynamism sufficient to feel comfortable passing judgment on someone’s implementation of it, but if I were on the board of a company which had devoted itself to strategic dynamism as a strategy, I would put a more substantial effort into educating myself. Lack of knowledge should indicate caution; the Board of Visitors seems to believe that their lack of knowledge and experience in higher education endows them with incisive outsider clarity. I point you to the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

As far as I can tell, strategic dynamism is a process of abandoning a methodical approach to long-term planning in favor of many radical short-term alterations with the hope of finding improvements. Again, I have no business training, so there’s probably more to it than this, but the buzzword articles I’ve seen on it lead me here.

So, in short, it’s a slightly formalized version of panic. Of flailing until you stumble across something that works, like the blind squirrel finding a nut. But both recent and long-term business history show us that successful companies are ones which know their core competencies and play to their strengths. This doesn’t imply a conservative approach, or a lack of change, but a considered process of adapting to changing markets. The companies that attempt to reinvent themselves radically while forgetting what they do well end up out of business far more frequently than they succeed.

Gah. I hate talking and thinking like this. It’s why I haven’t gone to business school.

My point is this: U.Va. did not and does not need to panic. Like all higher educational institutions, it’s facing pressures and change. Higher education has always faced challenges. There was never a golden age when education spending was unquestioned and alumni donations rolled in without effort and compromise. But what has kept the University of Virginia solid for nearly 200 years has been that it hasn’t forgotten where its strengths lie. We now offer degrees in subjects that hadn’t been invented in 1819. We excel at sports that had never been played. We educate students who weren’t considered worthy of voting rights. We’ve changed, and we will change again.

But we make the smart changes. The ones that the community deems necessary for the mission. The reason I can meet another U.Va. grad and feel a kinship with him or her is that I have some confidence that the place we graduated from is the same place, no matter how much time passed between the two of us walking the Lawn. I hope to have that same confidence in twenty years.

I’ve been referring to U.Va. in the first person a bit. Up until this month, I would say I was a fairly typical alumnus. I cheered for Virginia sports teams, attended local events, and gave irregularly and negligibly to the annual giving campaigns. I didn’t know what a rector or provost even was, beyond some vague notion of a high-ranking leader of a university. If you had asked me who the U.Va. president was, I would have stumbled for a bit. Then you would have prompted me, “Teresa Sullivan?” and I would have said, “that… sounds… right?”

No more.

I am now far more educated on university governance than I ever was. I know who Teresa Sullivan is. I will know who the next president is, and the next. For the rest of my life, I will be an engaged alumnus who follows, cares about, and supports his alma mater. This is not a pledge; this is a statement of the change that has happened. My mind, my heart, my efforts, and my checkbook will be devoted.

I’m not the only one who’s woken up this way. The University has an incredible chance here to focus this newly roused alumni energy and change the place in unimaginable ways.

But all of that opportunity will go away if we start to worry that we’ll no longer recognize the U.Va. of the future.

I genuinely have no idea if Teresa Sullivan was or would be an effective president. But the methods and reasons for making a change like this have to stay tied to the traditions that have earned the University the reputation it has. The Board has a chance to do something right on Tuesday. Very few of us get second chances; think about how much you’d give up for the ability to correct a few key mistakes in your life. All the members of the board have such a chance before them. I implore them to make the right choice.

2 archived comments Why no more comments?
  1. Lauren wrote:

    Well put, Shane!! Let’s hope the BOV feels similarly.

    Posted June 25, 2012 at 12:11PM
  2. JR wrote:

    From reading articles written about President Sullivan’s tenure thus far, it strikes me that there is a resemblance to a leader taking over an organization that has been stretched past capacity for some time.

    I don’t know if this was a conscious approach by Pres. Sullivan or if this is just her natural style, but I do think that if they install someone who is looking to move short distances in random directions at high speeds (and the organization was running at or above capacity) that they will quickly lose buy-in and people will either leave or get used up. This may have been to what Prof. Wolf referred in his (rather brusque) resignation letter.

    Posted June 26, 2012 at 1:40PM
1 archived pingback
  1. From Scars and stitches bury me | GranDelusions on June 26, 2012 at 3:34PM[…] My really good friend Shane wrote a nice blog about the issues going on at UVA right now. It’s likely to be resolved shortly (in one way or […]