The fight over college athletics is really a fight over what the University means

1. In some ways, it was natural for the university to become a type of sports franchise. I think of the pettiness of various professors, administrators and students I’ve encountered at a number of schools – schools that may not have Division I teams – and can’t help but wonder what end that spirit of “one-upsmanship” serves. That base competitiveness, that need to feel better than others, will not leave even if one does away with the corporate culture making things so much worse than they are:

…every “merit pay” scheme demands that increases be determined by a committee within each department. That is, some colleagues are put in charge of determining which other colleagues have been “productive,” and thus compelled to adopt a model of business or corporate competition in their relations with each other.

The colleagues who have been left behind wind up hating the colleagues on the committee — everybody thinks he or she is as “meritorious” as the next person in these situations — and they wind up hating each other, and all hate the people who have been given the largest “merit raises.”

The effect, in short, is to turn what had been a “republic of scholars” into a group of mutually resentful individuals each of whom detests all the others. (William Dowling, “Rutgers after Lawrence”)

I don’t know you’re going to have a “republic of scholars” if we got rid of considerations that are strictly business, stopped fetishizing the sciences to unnatural degrees, and placed more of an emphasis on reading, writing and the liberal arts. In fact, I know exactly what you get and the problems are manifold. Those problems, again, trace back to pettiness. People would rather put each other down than do good for each other. And they find innumerable ways of putting each other down when there are issues of understanding involved.

2. The fight against big-time collegiate athletics is refreshing in that it forces one to account for what the academy does. We know it isn’t just to advance the sciences, although that’s important. We know it isn’t just to form young people into a certain sort of person, although that too is important.

It really is about that clichéd sentiment: the purpose of the university is to allow minds to think independently. Not an empty mind, but an open one. I remember ISI’s “Choosing the Right College” guide being snarky about this once upon a time: there were liberal professors who couldn’t tell you what education was (because, apparently, minds less than Socrates’ can solve this problem). It didn’t take me long to learn that the problems identity politics posed were not unique to the Left.

Of course there are certain goals and standards to be met. No one can tell you “aha! You are thinking independently” at some prescribed moment (well, some can, but they are teachers of the highest order). We do want some reasonable standards set for a body of knowledge that is to be obtained. I will give ISI credit here: distribution requirements are no substitute for a Core curriculum and comprehensive examinations. Whatever says “here’s what you need to know, go learn it” is a good thing given how short and chaotic university life is.

3. But it’s what the Core and comps say that’s truly important. The intangible purpose – the hope – of the university is why the university exists. It ultimately does invest in its students. Every university could be doing more for its students in a multitude of ways. When I read, say, about Yale versus other schools

There are few, if any, opportunities for the kind of contacts I saw my students get routinely—classes with visiting power brokers, dinners with foreign dignitaries. There are also few, if any, of the kind of special funds that, at places like Yale, are available in profusion: travel stipends, research fellowships, performance grants. Each year, my department at Yale awards dozens of cash prizes for everything from freshman essays to senior projects. This year, those awards came to more than $90,000—in just one department.

– I immediately think how much better it would be if every school was just a little bit more like an Ivy, treating their students like they’re deserving, like they’re the future. And by students, I mean more than undergraduates.

Until the academy realizes that it is to be a solid, serious institution for the sake of those it admits, more than just the fight against big-time sports will be lost. The university as a whole is endangered. People really are willing to create places where others go play around with dangerous, experimental ideas. They may get mad at times about these places. They may want a bit of spectacle attached to them. It’s the university squandering the fact it exists that’s the fundamental problem. I noticed a friend involved in educational issues – she’s not formally affiliated with any school at the moment – never wasted a moment online in terms of learning herself or trying to teach something (her command of Shakespeare and Rousseau were something else). There are many like her. Would that universities as a whole adopt that seriousness of purpose. There are places that provide an education, and then there are educated people.

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