Alan Ryan

March 25, 2005

The travails of a sacked basketball coach and Harvard's president highlight US universities' results-driven ethos

Here in Charlottesville, the home of Thomas Jefferson and of the university he founded, a vote of non-confidence is in the news - but it's not Harvard faculty's recent chastisement of their president, Larry Summers. It is the dismissal of the University of Virginia's men's basketball coach, Pete Gillen, that has preoccupied the local press.

Inevitably, what catches the attention of the visiting Englishman is less the fact that Gillen has been sacked after two disappointing seasons in a row than the news that his payoff is about $2 million (£1.04 million) and his salary was about $900,000 a year. His offence was not only that he presided over a losing year, but that he did it at the exact moment that the university was replacing its clapped-out basketball facility with a sparkling new 15,000 seat venue, the John Paul Jones Arena.

Winning teams fill arenas; losing teams don't. You don't invest $130 million for an empty arena.

The two events are less unrelated than they seem. Although Virginia is a public university and Harvard a private one, they are both very large businesses, managed in much the way almost all large businesses are managed. Neither the president of Harvard nor the president of Virginia is answerable to faculty, who may announce they have no confidence in their leaders until they are blue in the face without impairing their authority, any more than the anti-war groups who mobilised a million people to object to Tony Blair's war in Iraq did much to impair his. It is the Board of Overseers at Harvard and the rector and visitors at Virginia who have the power to hire and fire presidents and to suggest to them who else might be hired and fired.

Like the boards of other businesses, they treat their CEOs with deference when they deliver and ruthlessness when they don't. The one obvious difference between Harvard and Virginia is that the Harvard Board of Overseers is not likely to become upset if the basketball team can't fill a 15,000-seat arena.

In the Ivy League, sporting success makes the alumni feel good, and sporting failure attracts rude comments from those elderly alumni who recall the heroes of their youth. But it doesn't do much more than that.

At Virginia and many other American public universities, in contrast, a successful sports programme is a vital ingredient in fundraising generally, but even more important in preserving good relations with the local politicians upon whose votes the university's budget depends. You don't expect the local politicians to feel good about your philosophy department; but if you want a good philosophy department, you want the politicians to feel good about your football team.

It is easy to feel sorry for Gillen. By all accounts, he is a nice, quiet, public-spirited man. One of his problems has been that, while his players have displayed the usual absence of self-control that marks the semi-professional players recruited to American universities, Gillen, unlike a lot of other coaches, has never suggested that their behaviour is something to be proud of.

It is less easy to feel sorry for Summers; words such as "self-effacing" do not spring to mind when his name is mentioned.

He is - and prides himself on being - self-opinionated, tough and in-your-face. He is also extremely clever and as energetic as he is sharp.

Summers' critics have wrong-footed themselves by appearing to suggest that the question of whether women's cognitive capacities are unlike those of men is off-limits. It obviously isn't.

It is, on the other hand, pretty inept to imply that hard-wired cognitive differences translate directly into appointments at Harvard. Indeed, in the original talk that gave such offence, Summers himself suggested some obvious reasons why women are likely to be underrepresented in professions where 70 or 80-hour working weeks are required for success. These reasons tend to boil down to the fact that women have more sense than men and don't see life as a series of fights in which winning is all that counts. Coming from Summers, this was an interesting insight, since he is an archetypal representative of the martial-minded camp and clearly enjoys a good punch-up.

Ultimately, the Harvard faculty who voiced their lack of confidence in him weren't voting against freedom of inquiry. They were taking advantage of a rare opportunity to vote against a bruising style of management in an environment where rank-and-file faculty have a lot of freedom to manage their individual academic lives but a wholly inadequate say in the direction of the university as a whole.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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