Friday, September 20, 2013

Margaret Mary, Bo Pelini, and America's Failing Universities

Bo Pelini
Online social media, which historically overlooks its own ironic juxtapositions, went bananas over two painfully apropos stories this week. In one, Margaret Mary Vojtko, a Pittsburgh-area college teacher, died under ignominious circumstances after a distinguished career that sadly included little pay and no benefits. Simultaneously, fans hotly debate the implications after Nebraska head football coach Bo Pelini said “fuck” six times on tape while dismissing mercurial fans.

Pelini, who has taken Nebraska to six bowl games in six seasons, makes $2,875,000 dollars annually—making him Nebraska’s highest-paid public employee, and the NCAA’s third-highest-paid football coach. Adjuncts like Margaret Mary earn a fixed salary per course per semester, and are generally limited in how many courses they may teach per year. Margaret Mary may have made $3,500 per course at private Duquesne University, twice what I made at a regional public university.

While Pelini's rant had justification—fans who walk out because he hasn’t secured victory before the half deserve some f-bombs—the attendant outrage suggests disproportionate priorities. Nebraska’s performance in a non-conference game, and fans’ calls for his ouster (again), imply that football somehow matters outside the stadium. Lack of outrage regarding Margaret Mary’s death implies that classroom learning doesn’t matter.

Statistics indicate that, unless your school is a BCS qualifier, your football program probably bleeds money. Even qualifiers like NU struggle to cover costs with tax abatements, advertising, and alumni donations. Universities justify these expenditures by saying that winning championships enhances enrollment and retention. Such assertions usually come without backing evidence, since football and enrollment are too divergent to easily study together.

Many recent books explore the lack of correlation between university expenditures and classroom outcomes. Football, once the darling of academic ire, now competes with lush campuses, extensive recreational opportunities, and resort-style residence facilities, especially at private universities. No wonder for-profit schools, once mocked, have become attractive options for poor students, adult students, and others who cannot benefit from adolescent largesse.

Duquesne University, Margaret Mary's school
Meanwhile, over half of university instructors find themselves locked at adjunct level, without benefits, job security, or official standing. Adjunct instructors generally teach general studies, like Freshman composition, introductory science, and basic math. They have little hope of achieving tenure-track status, and without it, no hope of watching their students progress throughout their academic career. Their ability to be good, lasting, influential teachers is stunted.

Yet educational theorist Gerald Graff makes a persuasive case that the gen-ed courses which schools disdain and fob off on adjuncts, are actually the most important in any school. The ability to translate thoughts into words, and arrange those words in an informative and pleasing way; to reason scientifically; to compute algorithmically—these aren’t nuisance courses distracting from specialization. These are education’s beating heart.

Highly educated people become adjuncts because they love teaching and believe in education. Lushly appointed Duquesne University let Margaret Mary Vojtko essentially starve while floating an NCAA Division I athletic program, because its leadership believes in prestige. This contrast between the university’s self-effacing workhorses and glory-seeking administration provides a glimpse into modern university policy.

It’s tough to imagine any way such disconnected values won’t distort universities’ educational mission. I had students finish the semester by shaking my hand, thanking me profusely for my dedication, and exiting my office, never to be seen again. Though they may not articulate it, students cannot miss the inherent subtext: academic effort doesn’t really matter. Nothing’s really worth pursuing beyond Finals Week.

Meanwhile, entire classes of students never know any coach but Pelini, whose persistent presence throughout their college careers emphasizes what really counts. Even Pelini’s subordinates get treated like royalty. Running back coach Ron Brown gets red carpet treatment at speaking engagements, including many at churches, where he is an outspoken opponent of gay rights. NU has become, essentially, a football academy.

Go Big Red
Many schools, like Boston University, Hofstra, and the University of Denver have discontinued their football programs. Some cite financial reasons: they’d rather spend that money on education. Some cite health concerns, especially amid current controversies about concussions and their lingering effects. And some schools just consider football’s popularity distracting. Such discontinued programs, however, remain rare outliers and front-page news.

The next American university that axes its football program, and redirects that money into creating secure, good-paying classroom jobs may face blowback. It may lose its alumni endowment. It may get mocked on ESPN. But it will also signal to current and prospective students nationwide that education, personal development, and long-term thinking matter. It will signal its identity as a school.

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