Two weeks ago, the University of Virginia’s governing body, the Board of Visitors, fired the president of the university. The move, of which there had apparently been no foreshadowing whatever, was accompanied by a statement about the need to “develop, articulate, and implement a concrete and achievable strategic plan to re-elevate the University to its highest potential” and some mutterings about something called “strategic dynamism.” In addition to the word salad, there was other evidence that the firing was part of a coup by business school alumni on the board, including the appointment of the undergraduate business dean as interim president. The faculty and students went ballistic.

Today word came out that the president will be reinstated: I guess when the Governor ordered the board to resolve the matter by today or be dismissed en masse, the message was clear, since the faculty and students had made it clear that they wouldn’t accept any other resolution.

I’ll be visiting the University of Virginia this fall, teaching the introductory course in the Batten School’s new undergraduate major in public policy. Last week I was in Charlottesville for a curriculum meeting, with the board’s ouster of the University’s popular president looming in the background. As it happens, the conversation at the meeting overlapped with what I suspect was the deeper issue between the president and the board.

No doubt U.Va., like the rest of the world, has been slow in adapting the processes of higher education to new economic and technological realities; like every other sector of the service economy, higher ed is caught between the Baumol Cost Disease and Moore’s Law. Learning how both to capture what goes on in its classrooms for export to other institutions and individual students and how to substitute other inputs for teacher-hours in the educational process will be a necessity for the survival of U.Va., and every other university. And learning how to do so at minimum sacrifice in other values is going to be an extraordinarily hard task. (My own institution has been astoundingly – but not unusually – slow on both counts, even in the midst of the existential threat created by badly diminished state funding.)

That said, the surprise firing of a university president is almost always a bad idea, so I’m glad the board backed off, especially as there seems to be no evidence that the president was dragging her heels on technological change, as opposed to being reluctant to abolish the Classics department.

The reference to Classics – which the board president disowned in a classic non-denial denial– points to what I suspect is the deeper debate here: about the purposes of the university. Everyone agrees on the research mission: elite universities are factories for producing new knowledge. (Whether “publish or perish” is a good universal rule even in research universities, and how far down the status chain it makes sense to push the research mission, are important but subordinate questions.) But the nature of teaching mission is more controversial. The governor’s statement cites “greater access at reasonable cost, training people well for the great jobs of tomorrow in an increasingly competitive global economy, and the advancement of knowledge to aid the human condition” as his three goals.

But training people for jobs, even “great jobs,” isn’t the same as offering education. (The governor’s statement mentions “higher education” as a category of activity three times, but the word “education” never occurs by itself.) Training provides “know-how,” and I don’t disparage it at all. But education provides knowledge, and the capacity and desire to acquire more knowledge, and inculcates the values of the love of truth and of integrity in its pursuit and communication. That’s a different goal, and a different activity. You can train a dog or a pilot or a surgeon or a chemical engineer; you can’t train an original thinker, or a robust citizen.

That brings me back to the curriculum meeting. The Batten School’s master’s programs are frankly professional: they don’t offer mere training, but they do offer training, in skills such as memo-writing and spreadsheet calculation. Their primary goal is to prepare people for active full-time participation in government and related activities. At their best, the style of analytic thinking they teach has greater reach than that, but if their graduates fail to get jobs in or related to the activities of government the schools aren’t doing what they intend to do. By the same token, if there’s something decision-makers and their advisers need to know, then the schools of public policy have a responsibility to teach it; if you don’t know what a House Appropriations subcommittee does or what a rule-making is, or can’t define the difference between benefit-cost analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis, we shouldn’t send you out into the world with an MPP.

But the undergraduate program is different, and different from an undergraduate degree in education or nursing or accounting. Everyone at the meeting in Charlottesville was clear on this point: a U.Va. BA in public policy is not intended to be a professional credential, but rather a liberal-arts degree. The students will emerge with some know-how to go along with their knowledge, but if the job is done right they will have learned a way of thinking about the world, not a mere skill-set.

In some occupational settings, a liberal education has tremendous practical value. The capacity to read a text, to say what’s in it, to reason about why it was written, to be able to compare it to other texts and say where the disagreements lie; to listen to two people arguing about something and be able to define their argument in a way both will agree to; to examine claims about knowledge and judge to what extent they are warranted; to identify what facts, or what analysis, would be required to resolve some dispute: these are, indeed, job-relevant “knowledge, skills, and abilities.” But that’s not all they are: they’re a passport to the past and to the world, and to the life of the mind, and tools for living well and for functioning well as the citizen of a republic.

Not every middle-class eighteen-year-old wants an education, and those who want university-based job training should have access to it. But it is a political task of the highest importance to identify those who want, and are capable of, “higher education” in its fullest sense, and to make it available to them. Not coincidentally, teaching those who want to be educated rather than merely trained is an activity that many people who also generate new knowledge find congenial, and – at least arguably – that sort of teaching adds to the accuracy and originality of what comes out of the research pipeline.

Yes, this is a deeply elitist mode of thinking. (Bordieu is not to be denied.) Yes, a “liberal-arts education” is also a badge of class membership: a license to wear a suit. And some of those who come to value education do so only because they first want the suit-license and only then discover that there is something of real value underlying the credential. But it’s also a defense of civilized values, without which a society, and most of all a republic, cannot function.

That’s what’s at stake when a bunch of rich folks and their professional servants (the U.Va. board does not seem to include anyone who has ever written a book or who currently engages in any activity not primarily about wealth acquisition) want to apply business-school principles and business-school buzz-words to managing a great university. This time the money-changers failed to take over the temple, but by no means have they been driven out of U.Va. or anywhere else.

As Susanne Lohmann points out (in a book we’re all breathlessly waiting for) the task of university management consists of keeping internal and external barriers – between departments, and between the university and the outside world – semi-permeable, while at the same time running a massive set of cross-subsidies.

Teresa Sullivan can now turn back to handling that problem. Better her than me.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.