Tag Archives: University of Virginia

University Research — Your Tuition Dollars at Work?

Bacon’s Rebellion reader “Izzo” pointed us to a National Science Foundation database that breaks down the R&D funding sources for U.S. universities. I have extracted the numbers for Virginia’s three leading research institutions — Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, and Virginia Commonwealth University — and converted them to pie charts. The yellow segments show the percentage of university research dollars that comes from each institution’s own resources.

Funding university research.

Funding university research. Data source: National Science Foundation Academic Institution Profiles database.

In raw dollars, here’s how much money we’re talking about:

Virginia Tech — $219 million
UVa — $123 million
VCU — $52 million

While some of those institutionally originated R&D dollars may come from endowments, Izzo contends that much of it is supported by tuition revenue.

“Where does tuition money go?” he asks. “I think it is an open secret in academic circles that a lot of it goes to fund research and graduate studies. For instance, one might think all research comes from external sources, but that is certainly not the case. … For UVA, $123M of research was institutionally funded in 2015, or $5,600 per student per year. … The majority likely comes from tuition and fees, and specifically undergraduate tuition and fees. When students and families are paying tuition and going into debt to do it (and this debt is subsidized and guaranteed by the government), this is where a lot of it is going, and they don’t even know it.”

I don’t know who Izzo is, and I don’t know with what authority he (assuming Izzo is a he) speaks. But his statement that most institutional funding comes from tuition and fees, if true, warrants much closer examination. While students and their families surely would like to see state universities conduct more R&D, they might well rise in insurrection if they thought that they were personally subsidizing that R&D, without their knowledge and consent, to the tune of $5,000 a year.

I don’t know how one would go about ascertaining the level of R&D subsidy embedded in the tuition. I seriously doubt that the universities themselves know the number or have the analytical capacity to calculate it. But Izzo has raised a fundamental issue here.

Faculty “Cost per Enrolled Student” Varies Widely

Average pay for professors is one important determinant of the "cost per enrolled student."

Average pay for professors is one important determinant of the “cost per enrolled student.” Source: “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities.”

More fascinating data from “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities,” co-authored by University of Virginia economics professor Sarah Turner….

Best paid fields. A key finding of her research is that average faculty salaries vary widely from department to department, depending upon supply and demand considerations specific to each field. Disciplines in which Ph.D.s are employed outside of academia tend to fare better than those with more restricted options. Also, departments that generate outside research dollars pay more as universities engage in bidding wars to recruit star faculty.

Consequently, at UVa’s College of Arts & Sciences fields, computer science and economics professors tend to earn a lot more than English, history and philosophy professors. As a history major, I’m disappointed, but there’s no surprise here. We’re seeing market forces at work.

Cost per enrolled student. Turner and  co-author Paul N. Courant then calculated the faculty cost per enrolled student for each of ten departments. They saw two main variables at work here: (1) how much faculty members are paid, and (2) how many students they teach. As noted in the previous blog post, the more highly a professor is paid, the fewer students he or she is likely to teach.

I must confess that I have long thought that the “hard” sciences were more expensive to teach — their faculty were more likely to engage in research and teach less. But that’s not the case at all. A critical variable I had overlooked is how writing-intensive a course is. Fields like English, history and philosophy require a lot of discussion and writing, and the tasks of teaching and grading students are extremely time-intensive. By necessity, their class sizes are smaller.

By contrast, other disciplines have courses that better lend themselves to lecture-hall teaching, and their answers have more clear right/wrong answers that are easily graded. Faculty can teach larger classes without a diminution in quality.

Thus, we find that teaching English (the most expensive discipline) entails more than three times the faculty cost per student than computer science (the least expensive).

Bacon’s bottom line: It is ironic that it takes two economics professors to generate these numbers. This is precisely the kind of analysis that universities should be undertaking themselves — for every academic department. If we think of English degrees, philosophy degrees, chemistry degrees, computer-science degrees and the like as different product lines, universities should know exactly how much (1) each degree costs to deliver, (2) how much each degree generates in revenue, and (3) how much each degree generates in surplus revenue (or operating profit).

Now, I’m not saying that we should start cutting the English department just because it is “losing” money. Perhaps English writing and reading comprehension is a foundational skill that justifies maintaining writing & critical thinking courses regardless of cost. (There may be less justification for poetry, Medieval literature and post-modern literary criticism.) But when it comes to reallocating resources within a university, administrators and department heads should know at a minimum whether different departments and programs within those departments are money sinks or money generators.

Do universities ask these kinds of questions? Highly dubious. Turner and Courant would not have felt compelled to do their research had UVa and University of Michigan administrations conducted the analysis themselves. The lack of such analytical rigor and the ignorance of underlying costs, I would suggest, is a huge contributor to the rising cost of tuition. How is intelligent cost control even possible? When it comes to university administrations, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance contributes to runaway tuition, student over-indebtedness and the degradation of living standards for an entire generation.

Faculty Productivity Paradox: Get Paid More, Teach Less

Faculty productivity paradox: The more professors are paid, the less they teach.

Faculty productivity paradox: The more professors are paid at UVa and the University of Michigan, the less they teach. Source: “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities. (“Click for larger image.)

Newly published research by Sarah Turner at the University of Virginia and Paul N. Courant at the University of Michigan sheds light on a critical factor driving the cost of attendance at public universities: faculty productivity.

Turner’s and Courant’s findings buttress a point we have made repeatedly on this blog: that higher-paid faculty members spend more time on research and teach fewer students than lesser-paid faculty members. Depending upon the academic department, a $50,000 increase in salary results in 5% to 30% fewer students taught (as seen in the chart above).

The analysis is restricted to tenure-track faculty. It does not compare the teaching loads to non-tenure-track “instructors” who get paid less and take on even heavier teaching loads than the professors.

Sarah E. Turner

In a paper recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities,” Turner and Courant ask if faculty  members are deployed efficiently at research universities. They base their findings on an in-depth analysis of the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, which are consistently ranked among the top public research universities in the country.

The authors conclude that UVa and Michigan are indeed “efficient” in the sense that they are economically rational in allocating faculty time and effort.

Tenure track faculty in research universities teach and they do research. Over the past several decades, the relative prices — in terms of wages paid to faculty — of those two activities have changed markedly. The price of research has gone up way more than the price of teaching. Salaries have risen more more in elite research institutions than in universities generally. …

Departments in research universities … must pay high salaries in order to employ research-productive faculty. These faculty, in turn, contribute most to the universities’ goals (which include teaching as well as research) by following their comparative advantage and teaching less, and also in teaching in ways that are complementary with research — notably graduate courses. The university pays these faculty well because they are especially good at research. It makes perfect sense that they would also have relatively low teaching loads (along with relatively higher research expectations) …

If we accept that the value placed on research in elite research universit[ies] is warranted, we conclude that the deployment of faculty is generally consistent with rational behavior on the part of those universities. Faculty salaries vary, for a variety of reasons, and the universities respond to that variation by economizing on the most expensive faculty….

Bacon’s bottom line. Note the caveat above: “If we accept that the value placed on research at elite research universities is warranted…” This goes to the heart of the debate over college affordability. UVa and other Virginia universities place an extremely high value on research. Why? Because the publication of research has an outsized effect on a university’s prestige, and the research dollars brought in enables departments to employ more faculty and graduate students, also markers of departmental prestige. By contrast, the cost of attendance is incidental to departmental interests.

Students and parents have a different perspective. While an institution’s prestige is clearly a factor in deciding where to attend college, the cost of attendance typically is a central concern as well.

In sum, universities can emphasize faculty productivity in research or in teaching. As the Turner/Courant data confirms, the system pays the most to the faculty members who teach the least. While the authors don’t go the extra step and say so, it seems clear to anyone outside of academe that undergraduate students are paying ever-higher tuition for the privilege of being taught increasingly by junior professors and instructors so tenured faculty can spend more time on writing and research.

UVa Professors Working Harder than You Think

 UVa professors do a lot more work than shows up on the Internet.

Siva Vaidhyanathan: UVa professors do a lot more work than shows up on the Internet. Photo credit: C-VILLE Weekly.

A few days ago, I delivered a rap on the knuckles to Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia. He had made what I found to be a remarkable statement in a radio interview: “The university systems throughout the state of Virginia are running lean. They’re serving students very well.” Really? Universities that had hiked tuitions 75% over the past decade were “running lean?”

In that post, I observed that UVa’s media studies department of 24 professors and lecturers was offering only 39 courses, and that lecturers had much bigger teaching loads than the professors. Moreover, I noted, Vaidhyanathan himself is not teaching a course this semester, offering the possibility that he was on sabbatical. What does that say about faculty productivity? It looked like UVa was paying big money — Vaidhyanathan $253,000 in 2014 — to spend time on research and writing instead of teaching.

Well, Vaidhyanathan saw the blog post and reached out. We had a friendly chat Monday. He credited me with asking “trenchant”  questions, but said there was more to the story that what I had conveyed in my blog post. In the spirit of exploring all sides of the higher education controversy, I summarize here what he had to say.

The reason he’s not teaching any classes this semester, Vaidhyanathan said, is that he is one of twelve faculty members selected by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to redesign the curricula. He has been involved full-time delving into the scholarship of teaching and in the design of new courses.

The College of Arts and Sciences requires students to take a minimum number of courses in math and natural sciences, the social sciences, history, non-Western perspectives, and humanities. Often, students take a checklist approach to areas outside their major, often gravitating to easy courses or professors and not getting much out of the experience.

A few years ago, he says, UVa professors began asking whether the process was really beneficial to students or just an exercise in catalog shopping. “We want students to understand the thought in all these areas, learn how scientists think, understand what the debates are in the humanities,” Vaidhyanathan said. “Can we restructure at least the first-year experience to give students a better tour of the modes of thought?”

Faculty members do more than teach courses, by the way. They advise students. “Even though I’m not teaching any courses this semester,” he said, I meet with two students who are writing theses. I’m meeting with a student doing independent study. We do all these extra things. Not to mention what we do with graduate students.”

Moreover, regarding the faculty-course ratios I mentioned in my blog post, he noted that four media studies faculty members are on research leave, paid by other universities to visit them. The average course load per professor is higher than my numbers indicated.

From what he has seen in academia, including teaching at two other universities, UVa places a high priority on teaching, Vaidhyanathan said. “Just last Wednesday, I sat through three of an assistant professor’s courses watching her teach and taking detailed notes. There’s a constant conversation on how to improve, how to try new technologies. There’s an ongoing debate on whether to use PowerPoint.”

When he taught at New York University, Vaidhyanathan was warned by his departmental chair not to place too much emphasis on teaching. The attitude there was that getting recognized as a good teacher before earning tenure marked a professor as someone who was giving insufficient attention to research. The attitude at UVa is different, he said. He sees scholarship and teaching buttressing one another. Staying on the cutting edge of one’s field makes one a better teacher; interacting with students gives perspective to the scholarship.

As astonishing as it may seem to some, Vaidhyanathan says he sees his job as a public service. He frequently asks himself, “Am I doing right by the taxpayers? Am I doing right by the students who are paying tuition?”

The best day of the year for him is graduation day, he says. “All the parents and students applaud us. I’ve never worked anywhere where that’s the case. They appreciate the work we do. It makes me feel really good.”

While he praises UVa, Vaidhyanathan concedes that it is a work in progress. He says that the institution had been “self-satisfied” for too long. “We’re no longer happy with just being listed in the Top Five public universities. That’s not really success.” UVa has had a shift in the conversation. “It’s not just about scoring well. Can we make a difference in childhood diabetes? Can we make a difference in big data research? Can we leverage our strengths to be one of the leaders?”

For too long, he said, UVa did not think strategically. That’s changing. “We’re hiring amazing young faculty members. We’re better connected to the needs of the Commonwealth than we’ve been in a long time.”

“Running Lean” at the University of Virginia

Siva Vaidhyanathan: defender of Virginia's higher ed status quo

Siva Vaidhyanathan: defender of  Virginia’s higher ed status quo

Once upon a time, the credo of American journalism was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Today, the attitude of many reporters is quite the reverse: Defend the institutional status quo against Tea Partiers, Trumpkins, rabble-rousers and other yahoos. The bias is especially evident in coverage of that most elite and privileged of establishment institutions, higher ed.

Sandy Hausman, a reporter for public radio station WVTF in Roanoke, broadcast a story recently about the effort by Helen Dragas, a former rector of the University of Virginia and board chair of Partners 4 Affordable Excellence, to make Virginia universities more accountable for skyrocketing tuition. (Full disclosure: Her organization sponsors this blog.)

Staking out a populist position on higher education, Dragas is speaking for millions of Virginia students and parents, present and future, who are paying, or will pay, unprecedented sums for a college education. As Partners 4 Excellence has noted, parents are spending 74% more to send their kids to college than they did 10 years ago. And there is no sign that the increases are slowing down.

But rather than explore the causes driving the runaway Cost of Attendance at Virginia colleges and universities, Hausman used the piece to debunk Dragas. She devoted much of the story to the remarks of Siva Vaidhyanathan, a University of Virginia media studies professor — hardly an unbiased source.

You can listen to Vaidhyanathan yourself. Suffice it to say that his observations, though not entirely without merit, were debatable. Parsing each sentence would be an exercise too tedious to engage in here. But one comment galled me.  “The university systems throughout the state of Virginia are running lean,” he said. “They’re serving students very well.”

That’s priceless coming from a professor in UVa’s media studies department. That department lists 15 professors and nine lecturers on staff. Between them, the 24 faculty members are teaching a total of 39 courses this semester. What’s particularly interesting is how the course load is distributed between professors and lecturers. The less prestigious (and presumably less well compensated) lecturers are teaching 19 courses, or an average of 2.1 courses each. The professors are teaching 20, an average of 1.3 classes each.

Ironically, Vaidhyanathan is not listed as teaching a single course this semester. Perhaps he is on sabbatical, I don’t know. He is also listed as the “Robertson Professor of Modern Media Studies,” which suggests that he sits in an endowed chair that supplements his state salary. His total gross pay, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch state salary database, was $253,000 in 2014. In other words, Vaidhyanathan is paid a salary worthy of the “1%,” not for carrying a heavy teaching load and “serving the students well” but for getting published.

He has written four books. His most recent, published in 2011, was “The Googlization of Everything And Why We Should Worry.” Judging by its Amazon.com blurb, the book actually looks pretty timely and relevant. For purposes of argument, let us grant the proposition that Vaidhyanathan is a brilliant intellect who brings credit to UVa. His employment and that of his media colleagues still is not what anyone could call “running lean.”

In examining the affordability higher ed institutions such as the University of Virginia, one of the many questions we must ask ourselves is this: Is faculty productivity improving or declining? As UVa seeks to recruit more star faculty who bring renown to the institution, what terms and conditions does it grant these superstars? How much time are they asked to teach? To how many professors is UVa paying top-drawer salaries for teaching two or three small-enrollment courses a year and spending the rest of their time writing articles and books?

It goes without saying that Vaidhyanathan and others like him would prefer to blame skyrocketing tuition on cutbacks in state aid to higher ed. The General Assembly has cut back and it does deserve a share of the blame. But reductions in state aid account for only half the increase in tuition, and only a fifth of the total cost of attendance when fees, room, board and other expenses are thrown in.

How many administrators does UVa employ, and what are they paid? How many faculty does UVa employ, and how are they compensated? How much does the institution spend on sports programs? How much on marketing to students with the goal of inflating applications and looking exclusive? How much has the competition for out-of-state students with high SAT scores led the university to upgrade dormitories, dining facilities, gymnasiums, and recreational facilities? There’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer to any of these questions, but they are all worth asking. Too bad Virginia journalists aren’t interested.

UVa’s Faculty Hiring Strategy

UVa's faculty recruitment strategy revealedEvery so often, “Virginia,” the University of Virginia alumni magazine, runs articles shedding light on the administration of Mr. Jefferson’s university. The latest issue focuses on the challenge of replacing some 300 aging faculty members and recruiting 100 more as part of its five-year hiring plan.

The university underwent a hiring boom in the 1970s when the university was expanding to accommodate the Baby Boom generation. Now the young guns hired four decades ago are old dues on the verge of retirement. Not only must UVa replace a large cohort of senior professors, it has to compete against other universities doing the same thing.

UVa is adopting two newish strategies to reshape its faculty. The first is “clustering,” which is hiring up to seven professors in multidisciplinary fields. The idea is that innovation, insight and academic breakthroughs often occur at the intersection of disciplines — such as neuroscience and traumatic brain injury, an area that UVa has targeted.

“The best way to build strength in an interdisciplinary field like the brain and neuroscience, says Provost Tom Katsouleas, “is to bring together the top talent and best minds from departments that touch on that across the University.”

The other strategy is to stay open to a “TOPs hire” — a target of opportunity hire — that would pick up a superstar faculty member even if the university isn’t actively searching in his or her field.

The UVa administration has made it a priority to increase the prestige of university faculty in its bid to become renowned as a “top ten” university. The turnover in tenured professors gives it a once-in-a-generation chance to make big gains. Of course, hiring top faculty costs money — significantly more than the university could afford on a standard state pay scale. Salaries must be supplemented by endowments, foundation grants or other sources such as the university’s controversial $2.2 billion Strategic Investment Fund.

As a Virginia taxpayer, UVa alumnus and interested citizen, I’d like to know how much money UVa has set aside for recruitment, and where the money will come from. Faculty salaries must compete with other priorities such as administration, buildings & grounds, and, of course, affordability. Unfortunately, the article does not provide any numbers that would enable stakeholders to evaluate the hiring initiative. Perhaps that information falls in the domain of “competitive intelligence” and the UVa administration is reluctant to share it. But if UVa wants to maintain the trust of the public, it needs to make that information available.

Virginia as Free Speech Zone

George Mason University as free speech zone.

Free speech zone at George Mason University

Three Virginia universities received high rankings in the Heterodox Academy Guide to Colleges for their commitment to diverse viewpoints. The University of Chicago and Purdue University garner the top “heterodoxy” scores for freedom from politically correct strictures on speech, but the University of Virginia, College of William & Mary and George Mason University belonged to a cluster of 12 prominent universities receiving the next highest ranking.

Virginia Tech received one of the lower scores, although it did not fare as poorly as Harvard, Brown, Northwestern and others that have instituted safe spaces and speech codes. The ranking took note of how Jason Riley, a conservative writer with the Wall Street Journal, had been dis-invited from speaking.

The Heterodox Academy is a politically diverse group of scholars concerned about the shrinking diversity of viewpoints on college campuses. States the Academy’s website: “When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.”

It will be interesting to see how UVa fares next year. The chastisement of engineering faculty member Doug Muir for making an unpopular comment on a Facebook page probably was not factored into the Academy’s calculations. Still it is reassuring to see that three of the four Virginia universities listed enjoy more freedom of expression than their peers.

The Academy rated the 150 colleges scoring highest in U.S. News & World-Report‘s college ranking. Key criteria include endorsement of the Chicago Principles on free expression, the presence of restrictive speech codes as determined by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) appraisal of whether a campus is welcoming to conservative and libertarian students.

Update: My deep throat source at GMU saw this blog post and forwarded the following email distributed throughout the university:

Dear Patriots,

George Mason University is a public institution that is committed to freedom of expression and the creation of more just and inclusive communities. The University is proud to support individuals’ rights to express their views. We believe that learning is best achieved through critical thinking and open dialogue.

We are mindful that certain topics elicit stronger emotional responses than others, especially when those participating in the conversations have contrasting opinions or seek to provoke. It is our expectation that members of our community engage respectfully in such dialogue, even when what is heard may seem offensive or distasteful. Several recent incidents on the Johnson Center North Plaza have involved hostile behavior directed at guests to the campus, including physical confrontations. Such displays of incivility undermine the scholarly mission of our university, and could carry significant legal and disciplinary consequences.

Our campus community, like others, will continue to be challenged by activities that some may view as personally distasteful or offensive. However, unlike many communities, we have the opportunity here at Mason to set an example and lead. I ask that you please remain respectful of opposing viewpoints and not engage in acts of incivility. You most certainly can counter speech you are offended by with your own speech. You can counter activities that are disagreeable to you with your own activities. You can choose to engage with those who have opposing viewpoints or you can walk away. Although the University supports your right to express discontent in a lawful manner, it is also obligated to uphold the rights of those who visit our campus to engage in constitutionally protected activities. Therefore, your cooperation is appreciated as the University continues to serve as a venue for engaging dialogues and freedom of expression.

Rose Pascarell
Vice President for University Life

GMU has just risen in my esteem. What a contrast with my alma mater, UVa.

— JAB

Does Diversity of Viewpoint Matter to UVa?

safe_spaceThe Douglas Muir controversy may have settled down now that the entrepreneurship instructor has abjectedly apologized for a stupid remark about Black Lives Matter on Facebook and will resume teaching at the University of Virginia. But questions about UVa’s commitment to freedom of expression linger. Muir’s comment was a flash in the pan; the worldview of university administrators is deeply entrenched and will govern the institution’s actions going forward.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch asks some pointed questions in an editorial today:

A statement from the Engineering School where Muir lectured said it could not abide “actions that undermine our values, dedication to diversity and educational mission.” This deserves careful parsing.

First: Don’t the school’s values include freedom of thought and expression?

Second: In what way, exactly, did Muir’s post undermine the school’s dedication to diversity? If diversity means, in practice, that harsh criticism of Black Lives Matter will not be allowed, then what other groups are off limits? Perhaps the school should draw up a list.

Third: Does diversity include diversity of viewpoint? If so, then why is Muir’s viewpoint out of bounds? If diversity does not include diversity of viewpoint, then what purpose does diversity serve?

Finally: How does silencing unpopular — and on campus, immensely unpopular — viewpoints like Muir’s advance U.Va.’s educational mission? Colleges already look too much like intellectually gated communities where dissent from prevailing orthodoxies is forbidden. By hanging Muir out to dry for voicing an offensive opinion, U.Va. has just signaled to others who might also might deviate from approved viewpoints that they would be wise to keep their thoughts to themselves.

Students taught in such a stilted atmosphere will be unprepared for the wider world.

Read the whole thing.

Meanwhile, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, affiliated with the University of Virginia Law School, hosted a symposium yesterday addressing free speech in higher education. (Hat tip: Randy Salzman.) Remarkably, none of the speakers addressed the Muir controversy, according to The Daily Progress.

“The entire debate was between center-left influencers bringing up articles by other center-left influencers,” noted attendee Jason Kessler. “I told them, if we’re really going to get to the crux of this thing, then you need to let right-wing and conservative people have a voice in the debate,”

— JAB

Muir Apologizes, Will Resume Teaching

Douglas Muir has issued an apology for making a controversial Facebook statement about the Black Lives Matter movement and will resume teaching his classes at the University of Virginia next week. An excerpt from his statement, as reported by the Cavalier Daily:

On October 4, I responded to a Facebook post about Black Lives Matter by comparing the organization to the Ku Klux Klan. I was wrong in my comparison and want to offer my profound apologies for my words. …

As I have come to learn the long, violent history of the Klan, it makes my comparison misguided and shows a misunderstanding of the past. I am ashamed to admit that I knew little about Black Lives Matter when I wrote that post. This lack of awareness is unacceptable for our civil discourse and most especially for an educator like myself. My post was an unfortunate example of what I tell my students never to do because it was criticism without investigation.”

Yeah, his original post was unfortunate. The Black Lives Matter movement is guilty of inflammatory rhetoric, but a comparison with the KKK with its lynchings and cross burnings was ludicrous.

All’s well that ends well, I suppose, although his statement does sound like a document one might sign when emerging from a re-education camp. One interesting line did slip into the statement:  “I never imagined that my words would lead to threats against my family and my employees.”

I wonder what the story behind that statement was and how it might have shaped his apology.

— JAB

More Questions about Muir’s “Leave” from UVa

Doug Muir

by James A. Bacon

In light of the departure of adjunct faculty member Doug Muir from his University of Virginia teaching positions after making controversial statements about the Black Lives Matter movement on Facebook, the question has arisen: Does UVa have the right to fire employees for objectionable speech? (For background, see “Safe Spaces: Not Just for Classrooms Any More.”)

First, let me clear that the exact circumstances of Muir’s departure from UVa are murky. All we know from the public record is a statement by Craig E. Benson, dean of the engineering school where Muir taught, that “Mr. Muir has agreed to take leave.” One can deduce from that comment that the university wanted him to leave but sought a voluntary departure. That minuet, however it transpired, may not meet the legal definition of a firing. But judging from the context of the controversy, it looks like UVa exercised some arm-twisting to effect Muir’s departure.

Virginia is an employment-at-will state, which gives employers wide latitude in terminating employees for whatever reason the boss man desires. However, employment-at-will is not an absolute doctrine. If employers and employees signed an employment contract, for instance, the contract has primacy. Furthermore, the rules for public employees — and the University of Virginia is a public entity governed in many ways by state law — can differ from the rules for the employees of private companies.

I searched the Internet for any documents or guidelines that UVa might have published explicitly laying out the university’s policies toward the use of social media. If the university had explicitly warned employees that they could be held accountable for private comments (made as private individuals, not as representatives of the university) on outside (non-university) social media, then Muir doesn’t deserve much sympathy. Conversely, if the university had no formal policy, then one can ask whether the university was being arbitrary and capricious in seeking Muir’s departure.

A number of documents set guidelines for the use of university-owned or -sponsored social media, and some address the use of outside resources like Facebook to advance university goals and objectives. None of those, however, touch upon an employee’s rights to express political opinions in a non-university forum. Indeed, I could find no university-specific documents outlining expectations for employee behavior. I have submitted email and voicemail requests to UVa’s media relations department to provide any such documents, if they exist, but have not yet heard back.

The best discussion I found on the general subject is the “Handbook of Free Speech Issues,” published by the California State University’s office of the general counsel in 2009. It is worth quoting:

Because CSU employees are “public employees” they have greater rights than private sector employees to voice themselves in the work place. There are four relevant types of protected speech: labor-related speech, political speech, religious speech and matters that are of concern to the public at large.

Imposing discipline or taking an adverse work-related action against an employee for engaging in any protected form of speech is clearly prohibited, as is threatening or intimidating an employee in order to prevent them from engaging in protected speech. …

Campuses may not prohibit or take any adverse action based on an employee’s personal political affiliation, activity or beliefs.

Muir’s departure from the university, which left administrators scrambling to find someone to pick up his classes, came after his comments stoked a public furor. Charlottesville Mayor Wes Bellamy encouraged people to boycott a restaurant owned by Muir’s wife and wrote, “I implore the Darden School of Business … to address this issue immediately.” NAACP representative Rick Turner told WVIR-TV, “Not only should they drop his class, the university should get rid of him, if they can, They should not allow him to stand in front of students again.”

According to the UVa “Terms and Conditions of University Staff Employment,” employees can be terminated for just cause. “Causes for suspension or termination shall include but are not limited to: unethical or unlawful conduct, misappropriation of funds, misconduct that interferes with the capacity of the employee to perform effectively, falsification of credentials or experience, and failure or refusal to comply with applicable University policies, rules and regulations.”

It would be interesting to know which of these causes UVa might consider to be grounds for nudging Muir into unemployment. Because the Muir matter is a personnel issue, UVa is within its rights to withhold comment. But if the administration doesn’t explain itself better, this sure looks like a case of buckling under pressure to suppress unpopular views.

Update: Muir has publicly apologized for his Facebook post and will resume teaching next week. The circumstances behind his “leave” still remain murky, but it was not a firing, and my deduction above that the university nudged him into leaving is not supported by the evidence. University spokesman Anthony P. DeBruyn tells me that “the University did not take disciplinary action against Mr. Muir” and that “he volunteered to go on leave for a short period.”

Still, the bigger question of this post remains: What right does a public university have to fire an employee who expressed an unpopular but personal opinion in social media? Sooner or later, that issue will arise, if not at UVa, then at another Virginia university.