Sunday, January 30, 2011

Understanding What Drives the Modern University (hint: it is not academics)

For those who wonder when the decline of the American empire began in earnest, look no further than this Sunday's sports edition of the New York Times.  In its front page, you will find a story about a school in Texas spending $60 million dollars to built what the Times labels a "palace," also commonly known as a football stadium.  In these difficult economic times, this community put the question to a vote, whether to pass a $119 million bond to finance the project as well as a few other projects, and it passed by a resounding 63% of the vote.  

I cannot speak about other states, but in my home state of Indiana, communities went to the voters this past election to ask for money to finance basic school needs, and were largely rebuffed.  It is all about priorities, I say.  

Standing alone, this piece is disturbing enough, an example of misplaced priorities.  But then you turn to page 10 and find a terrific opinion piece by William Rhoden.  This is a piece about the University of Connecticut's athletic department and one boosters tantrum over his lack of involvement in the recent search for a football coach.  This booster -- Robert G. Burton, of Burton Capital Management -- has donated over 7 million dollars to the university, and the team's training complex bears his family's name.  He has asked that the school return the money and remove his family's name from the complex.

Mr. Rhoden then brings up the relationship between Phil Knight, founder of Nike, and the University of Oregon.  The argument here is that the money given by millionaire donors is 100% tax deductible, and once they make those donations, they want access and even some control.  Case in point: back in 2000, Phil Knight withdrew a pledge of $30 million to the university because it had decided to join the Workers Right Consortium, and organization critical of Nike's labor practices.  In due course, the university withdrew from the group and Knight then gave the money.  As of December 10, 2010, the Consortium has 180 member schools.  The University of Oregon is not one of them.

But here is the clincher, in the words of Richard Lariviere, President of the University of Oregon:
“[The donors] want what is in the best interests of the university,” . . . . “People confuse entertainment and education. I really wish the American public would pay as much attention to Shakespeare and classic Indian literature, but they do not. They want football. Football is entertainment, and they want it.”
High schools and universities are giving the American public what they want, and it so happens that they want football, not Shakespeare.

It is really that simple.  In the meantime, universities are in bad shape while athletic departments thrive and football and basketball coaches break the bank.  Somehow, in the middle of all of this, there is a debate over the future of tenure.  That is where the real problem lies.

To which I say: they cannot be serious.

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