Commons revolt

A community can run wisely and well without market values, Alan Ryan says

July 12, 2012

Last month was an exciting one in the US. The Supreme Court saved Barack Obama’s bacon twice in a week, first by ruling that almost all Arizona’s legislative efforts to make the lives of illegal aliens intolerable were unlawful, and then by deciding that the signature legislation of Obama’s presidency, the Affordable Care Act - known as “Obamacare” - passed constitutional muster.

They were landmark decisions, but I was more struck by a curious coincidence. Elinor Ostrom, the first female winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, died on 12 June. A couple of days earlier, the first female president of the University of Virginia was ousted after less than two years in post. The rector of Virginia’s board of visitors - that is, the chair of the trustees - and a couple of colleagues decided that Teresa Sullivan was too little like an activist chief executive and too much like a university president - and was in any case insufficiently committed to their ideas about cutting down humanities programmes, beefing up medicine and business, and following the latest fashions in online learning. So they called her in with no warning of what was afoot and asked her to resign. Assuming they spoke on behalf of a united governing body, she did. Then all hell broke loose - faculty, students, alumni, the press and politicians fell upon the trustees. The coincidence is that Sullivan defended a management style that in essence rested on the ideas for which Ostrom got her Nobel prize.

Ostrom, who was not an economist by training, was a political scientist, except that she was not one of those in the currently fashionable sense, either. High-tech political science mimics economics; her work was more anthropological than most political science. She was famous for not exactly solving but rather reframing the old problem of the tragedy of the commons. The problem in one of its formulations goes all the way back to Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s proposals that the ruling elite described in The Republic should have no private property but ought rather to have everything in common, including spouses and children. That way, Plato thought, they would always think in terms of “ours”, not “mine”. Aristotle observed dispiritingly but plausibly that what is owned by everyone is usually neglected rather than cherished.

The modern version says that where resources are owned in common, everyone with access to them will overuse them. No individual has an interest in preserving them because doing so won’t affect other people’s behaviour; absent some formal enforcement mechanism and common fields will be overgrazed, fisheries overfished, forests denuded. That’s the “tragedy” of the commons. It’s an outcome that the actions of self-interested individuals are doomed to produce, even though people will be individually, as well as collectively, worse off than they would be if they were more restrained. What Ostrom did was to examine the various ways in which different groups avoided the tragedy. She was impressed by the capacity of human beings to cooperate and by the ingenuity with which they found satisfactory solutions to resource allocation.

Which brings us back to the University of Virginia and to what types of management do and do not work in universities. US public universities mostly have a governance structure that would give UK academics nightmares. Appointing and dismissing trustees - often described as regents or visitors - is generally the prerogative of the governor of the state in which the university is located. Ronald Reagan became governor of California promising to sack Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California, who duly departed, in his own words, “fired with enthusiasm”.

When it was clear that the board of visitors had screwed up, the governor of Virginia gave them 48 hours to sort themselves out, or else he would sack the lot of them. Sullivan was duly reinstated. The impressive part of the fiasco, however, was the speed with which the academic community reacted. Virginia is not in all respects a wonderful university, but it is special. When Thomas Jefferson decided what would go on his tombstone, he chose three achievements: the Declaration of Independence; the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty; and the foundation of the University of Virginia. No mention of his two terms as president of the US; no mention of the Louisiana Purchase.

The members of “Mr Jefferson’s University” displayed the sense of institutional common ownership that Ostrom spent her career investigating and which Sullivan claimed was more appropriate to an institution of higher education than a corporate model; commercial corporations, after all, are owned by their shareholders, and live and die in the marketplace. Universities are in the business of producing an intellectual life, both as regards teaching and research, that is inseparable from their activities. Sullivan talked of securing “buy-in” from a university community as a precondition of successfully implementing change, which is surely right.

The other lesson, of course, is the value of having people on governing boards who know the institution from the inside and who understand what universities are about; Virginia’s rector, Helen Dragas, was a successful real estate developer, as the rebellious faculty and alumni kept on pointing out, not without a certain hauteur. The problem would have been the same if she had been a banker or the conductor of a world-class orchestra; it was not that she had been in trade, but that she had a tin ear for institutional nuance. I find it easy to feel sorry for her; after all, UK higher education has had to cope with an awful lot of people, from government ministers to assorted vice-chancellors, whose grasp of what universities are about has been no better than hers, and few have suffered such universal obloquy.

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