Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Final Paper Proposal: Presidents Under Fire

In 2012, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan was asked to resign without warning. The announcement and subsequent speculations and investigations resulted in outrage across the campus and throughout alumni networks. It also brought significant media attention. Ultimately, Sullivan was reinstated. Almost a year later, in 2013, New York University President John Sexton received his fourth vote of no confidence from one of the university’s many schools. His presidency had been controversial for many years, and when his term ends in 2016, Sexton will step down.

The two schools are both similar and different. Both are competitive to enter, well regarded nationally for both undergraduate and graduate education, and promote their strong alumni networks. UVA is known as a “public ivy,” an elite school that also is very much tied to the state of Virginia. NYU also is identified as an elite institution, and though private, has a strong connection the surrounding city.

The two situations also were similar but different. A leader at the helm of the institution was challenged. For one, the decision came secretly from an external board of directors. For the other, the challenge was internal and from the school’s faculty. One caused uproar on campus and across alumni networks. The other seemed more more controversial in the media than on campus. At the heart of both incidences, though, were questions of vision and proper management of the university. Where one president was accused of “not being innovative enough” (Sullivan), another was accused of being “too innovative” (Sexton). This unease in both instances reveals a simmering uneasiness about the university and its future, which can perhaps best be understood through the rhetoric and narratives surrounding the controversies.

In my final paper, I will draw on themes explored in this class to analyze these two highly visible incidents. Using textual analysis, I propose to explore two sets of texts for each school. The first is the speeches and other notable communications posted on each president’s website for the year leading up to their controversy and the year after it. These texts will help explore how the presidents frame their university and its particular role in education. The second is media coverage of the events. Looking at how the media frames these two incidents will unveil everyday narratives about the role of the university that circulate to a broader audience.

In my analysis of both texts, I intend to identify themes of how innovation and how the university’s role are discussed. Connected to these ideas will be particular interpretations of the proper role of the university, including academic capitalism and mode 2 learning, as well as the “proper” way for higher education to move forward. I will then compare: the rhetoric of the two presidents; the rhetoric of the presidents and their respective coverage; and the coverage of the two instances. As the controversies and universities are at once similar but distinct, finding places of overlap and disconnect will be important to understanding how we think about public and private universities and their future.

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