Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The hammer falls; now let's do some academic reform to show we've learned

The Joe Paterno statue is down, and the NCAA has hammered Penn State because of Joe's and the University's inaction at a repeat child abuser who liked the cozy showers of our Athletic Department.  It's not fair in lots of ways, but life is that way. The University didn't see to business properly, and a number of boys were seriously harmed--even if this had nothing to do with the athletes or the rest of the university.

But the memory of Joe Paterno, the rightfully legendary coach, will now be in disgrace for a fault that will overshadow his accomplishments.  Taking away his victory total is a ridiculous part of the punishment because it's wholly unrelated to the failings. But there were certainly real faults--there was clearly too much power given to athletics and too much idolization of the coach, too much brand-consciousness and risk aversion.  Keep anything negative quiet!

So Paterno's statue, which really should never have been put up while he was still active, is gone.  In fact, as most of us here knew, he had outlived his glory days before the main events that caused all this.  Had he retired at age 70 or so, when his coaching and recruiting skills and involvement were waning, and there was a lot of sentiment for him to become a senior statesman, this wouldn't have happened.

Of course, it did happen, and we pay the price.  So what do we do?  Our new administration has been saying the university will re-balance 'academics' with athletics.  Maybe the NCAA's sanctions will force us to actually do something to match those words--which, otherwise, will just be more cotton-candy from the spin machine that is in full gear trying to do just what got us into trouble: damage control.

Now that we will have a limited-talent football team for several years, perhaps we can really take our academic responsibilities seriously.  There might be, say, 50,000 fewer people at our down-graded football games.  Maybe some of the students just won't bother to go.  This should be seen as an opportunity.

We should raise the standards for student admissions, to attract here students who actually want to study and learn something; there might not be be nearly as many as we have here now, because this won't just be a 4-year party & football attraction.  Maybe they'll actually go to class (sober, at least more of the time), and classes will be smaller.  This will surprise them, since suddenly their work will be under scrutiny....but they'll also get more actual faculty attention than they can now.  Which is what they're paying for.

We should raise the standards for earning high grades, retention, and passing courses.  Reduce the subtle pressure on faculty to be entertainers, or to retain students who don't measure up, freeing those students to transfer and save on the cost of our very high tuition and go somewhere more suited to their abilities and interests--and enabling us to provide a better product to those many very fine students here who deserve that.  More homework, no graduation without basic skills compatible with a major university education.  Raise what it means to have earned a Penn State degree.

The sexual abuse scandal was dreadful, but its having been bottled up reflected a much broader pattern of image ('brand') protection, and looking the other way from serious problems, hoping they'll just go away has become a widespread kind of institutional reflex.  It's about image and revenue--and Penn State is not the only one at this game!

There is a national problem in higher education (not to mention K-12), in which universities are processing their 'student customers' in an exploitative way for their tuition that is not so different from how we exploit 'student athletes' for ticket and TV money (except Penn State and Joe Paterno insisted that the 'student-athletes' actually go to class!).

We can perhaps take some leadership nationally now that even if we wanted to remain obsessed with sports, we won't be able to.  We'll have to find some other way to contribute in a worthy way to society.  Why not start by giving our students a much better education, when they're no longer so distracted by football?


Holly Dunsworth said...

When I taught there, I could always count on the football players to be good students who kept up with the material and contributed positively to the classroom experience. This is timely.

Ken Weiss said...

In 20+ years of teaching a large upper-level class in human genetics, I've only had 3 football players that I was aware of. One did poorly, but two of them got (and earned) B's. Athletes from other sports generally did even better.

The Athletic Department checks up on 'student-athletes' periodically during the semester. One can say this is a subtle kind of pressure to go easy on them, and also that they are given various kinds of tutoring help. But I've never heard of any faculty member being directly pressured to pass an athlete, and the monitoring they get certainly helps their education.

How many would be here if they had to sink or swim on their own is a separate question, as are how many are majoring in substantial fields of study, and the justification for providing them with a level of help not given to other students.

But we certainly did pay attention to the academic performance of our athletes. Our graduation rates and other measures show that.

It is the deeper issue of weakened general academic standards for undergraduates at major universities that I am concerned about.

Holly Dunsworth said...

My comment was in no way meant to undermine the deep issue of weakened general academic standards for undergraduates that you (and I) are concerned about. It just saw that article, thought it related a bit, and wanted to share.

Ken Weiss said...

Right, I realize. In fact, the Athletic Dept probably did a better job than the rest of us at keeping students on task. Athletes have many benefits as students, but also many burdens and demands of their sport.

I think it's time for a nationwide campaign to stiffen academic standards. Students passed through the system without a serious level of educational productivity and achievement don't get nearly what they are paying for--but the universities get their tuition, and are well aware of that.

Reform is important. Book after book is being published showing the problems. But reform is difficult, as it requires faculty and administrations--and above all, students--to change their way of doing things. There will always be resistance. But if we don't reform from the inside, it will be imposed on us after it's too late, by our being outcompeted internationally, and our standard of living reduced as a result.

That, at least, is a danger of being a complacent society.

James Goetz said...

Hmm, I am trying to make sense of the metaphysics of PSU football not winning a game since 1998. I experienced drastically differently thoughts about this only last week. But it never happened. That was some paradigm shift.

Ken Weiss said...

It's a totally subjective or even vindictive gesture to 'vacate' victories earned fairly on the field. That penalty was over the top, no matter how appropriate the other kinds of penalties are.

It is hard to believe that if JoePa and the others, including President Spanier, had really understood what was being reported--perhaps especially Spanier with his now-revealed experience as well as professional expertise--they would have looked the other way.

The only plausible explanation, to me, given the Freeh Report's findings, is that the urge to contain a scandal was so great as to blind them to what was going on. That's even a hard case to make given the exchanges about how this could come back to bite them in the future.

Nonetheless, JoePa did enormously good things for us. A bad thing he did, however, was inadvertent: he let football define us. Prior to his arrival, Penn State was at best a provincial university of no real distinction.

What we need now is to belly up to the issues that would be required to take on the academic slide that's been occurring in this country, and here, and do something about it.