Saturday, January 21, 2012

Give us a sporting chance!

Penn State is in the news everyday, and a long story in today's NY Times hammers on the drum of athletics out of control in universities.  It's possible, as a few lucky universities show, to have both: good athletics and good academics, but the greatest academic universities in the world don't, by and large. So it may be a cash cow but athletic departments aren't vital to good academics. But what, exactly, do administrators even mean when they utter the flash-word 'academics', and promise to keep them in balance with athletics, as our new president has said?  What are they themselves actually thinking?

Penn State's 108,000 seat Beaver Stadium
This is not so simple a matter, as the Times story points out.  Unfortunately, they take Penn State specifically to task for empty verbiage on this score.  When the promise of restoring 'balance' is mentioned, not a word is said about what that means.  Basically, so far, what it means here is paying a lot of money to Madison Avenue to create a new spin, perhaps some images on university web pages of students actually studying, or something hefty like that.

The truth is that SanduskyGate, which has been such a problem here at Penn State, is being treated as a problem for the athletic department.  There is heavy bemoaning of how our legendary coach Joe Paterno was forced to retire, with almost not a peep about the firing of the President.  Nobody gives a damn about him, it seems.  This safely sequesters the problem within the athletic department.  And here we're not referring to the incredibly tragic syzygy of awful events.  But the truth is much more profound than that.

We got into this mess, and other universities are vulnerable to the same thing, because as an institution we have been Republicanized: turned into a business to satisfy ourselves rather than our students, to raise money and take no chances.  We all know the grant system works that way--and by the way, this is not about Penn State but about all serious universities, of which we are clearly one.  We just had the bad luck to be embarrassed by it.

When we say we vow to restore a balance between athletics and academics, we de facto put them on the same scale, as equals!  That is preposterous!  And worse, of course we never say what 'academics' means.  That's because taking a stand on that is inconvenient; it takes guts and risk.  If we took it seriously, many students would not apply to come here--they even say in surveys that it's the athletics they come for.  That, in itself, is a preposterous big red flag.  And we're not alone, Paternoville or not.

We know very well that America's educational system, from K-12 through universities, is complacently and seriously dropping the ball.  Students aren't learning, aren't doing much homework, don't know how to find the library, and aren't nearly keeping up with the other countries' students with whom we compete for wealth and security.  As the Roman Emperor said, when the people are restless, give them bread and circuses.  To keep our student clientele, and though nobody says it out loud, what we provide are dumbed-down classes and spectator sports (and drinking venues).  To keep our tuition flowing so we can pay our faculty members and a horde of administrators quite handsomely, we have to avoid students dropping out.  We have to have looser admission standards, and admit thousands more customers than in the past (and claim that that's a good thing).  Don't scare them away from classes by using big words or insisting on attendance or giving bad grades or calling students on cheating! 

Science, our particular interest, to be done well requires properly skilled and trained professionals.  We're supposed to be providing them to society.  The current systematic backing down and easing up at universities--nationwide, not just here--is easy in the short-run but potentially devastating in the long run.  Broader scholarship than science, attitudes and nuances that make for more edifying lives and better citizens are similar.

However, how many administrators have what it takes, to take the risk with their trustees and donors, to  make real rather than cosmetic image-centered changes that will redress the problems?  How much we wish our leaders would do that!  Could it happen here, a place we care a lot about, now that we have been handed the opportunity, even if on a tarnished platter?

Leadership in such reform must be vigorous and persistent, because the problem is deep, systemic, and nationwide.  There will be resistance, even among faculty who won't want to change what or how often they teach or to demand more of better students, which demands more of themselves (ourselves). The news stories are all about a football coach and a boy getting shafted in a shower.  While the sexual abuse is the tragedy here, for universities the wider story is the economic bath we're all going to have to take if our nation doesn't get out the soap and clean things up.