Archive for the 'college' Category

College sports and the business of education – Updated

November 28, 2009

(Scroll to the end for an update on this post.)

Writing for the Times, Gilbert Gaul gives new voice to the old complaints about collegiate athletics: they spend too much and siphon money away from the “education” part of post-secondary education.

The rise of College Sports Inc. didn’t happen by accident. Administrators at many universities have allowed athletic departments to operate independently, like stand-alone entertainment divisions. They have separate budgets, negotiate their own TV deals and, in some cases, employ hundreds of coaches and staff. And as long as they continue to collect ever-larger sums from ticket sales, boosters and television, who is going to tell them to spend less?

Gaul holds that college sports use up too much money. I agree. But I can’t get behind his proposal to curb this spending:

If college presidents really wanted to halt the college sports machine, they could try two options. They could insist that athletic departments operate within their university budgets, like the English or biology departments; or they could ask Congress to rescind the tax breaks on the commercial income earned by athletic programs.

The “college sports machine” is not a monolith. This machine has two parts: revenue-generating blockbuster sports, which are run as a business (usually football and men’s basketball), and nonrevenue sports, which are run as a charity. The dominant business model in collegiate athletics has the former supporting the latter, and, ideally, kicking back a few bucks to the academic departments. When we talk about overspending in college sports, we conflate egregious spending on the moneymaking team (five-star hotel stays for football players) with “ordinary” spending on nonrevenue sports. Many if not most collegiate football programs in this country, for example, would probably be able to stand on their own. If most collegiate athletic departments need outside support, then perhaps it is spending on nonrevenue sports – and not excessive investment in revenue-generating ones – that is to blame.

I suspect that propping up nonrevenue sports is what’s hobbling collegiate athletic programs. Gaul suggests that limiting how much money athletic departments can make or spend will fix their overspending problems. But it seems that dropping the financial obligations of nonrevenue programs might be a surer way of getting college sports to pay their way. While I am speaking of both men’s and women’s nonrevenue sports, there is no getting around the issue of gender equality in sports with such a proposition, which runs directly counter to Title IX as it is currently enforced today.

Title IX states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Because athletic departments are considered to be “education programs,” they have been required to demonstrate progress towards or accomplishment of equal opportunity in sports participation. Historically, colleges have done this by establishing new nonrevenue sports for women and cutting existing nonrevenue sports for men. If, as I propose, nonrevenue sports in general are curtailed, female student-athletes will disproportionately bear the brunt of disappearing scholarships, facilities, and staff.

That said, I don’t believe that dropping nonrevenue sports from collegiate rosters will deal any serious blow to gender equality in education or in the broader society. Remember that Title IX applies to college sports on the premise that sports represent an “education activity” that somehow contributes to a student’s education in that college. Running with this assumption, we might conclude from the numbers on sports participation that the real inequality is not between male and female student-athletes, but between student-athletes and everyone else. In 2002, fewer than 2.5% of students enrolled in any college participated in school-sanctioned athletics.* For comparison, when Rutgers and Princeton each fielded 25 men for the first football game ever, the players on the field represented over 11% of the schools’ combined student body.

But I would question even that assumption – that participation in collegiate sports offers men or women a leg up in the world, especially outside the revenue-generating programs. Competing in a varsity sport is at least as draining to a college student as holding a strenuous full-time job. Meanwhile, the socioeconomic gains from such participation are small and elusive: scholarship money is scarce, the “character-building” aspect is questionable**, and the contribution to one’s education is negligible at best, negative at worst. Thus, if participation in college sports cannot be legitimately described as “educational”, then such participation – equal or otherwise – should not be governed by Title IX***. More importantly, if participating in college sports does nothing for one’s education, then colleges have no business subsidizing nonrevenue sports and the student-athletes who compete in them.****

If you’re still not convinced, I ask you to at least get your story straight. Either participation in college athletics is essential to schools’ educational missions, in which case athletic departments should become even bigger money sinks in their quest to enroll anybody and everybody in organized sports; or playing college sports is not an educational activity, in which case it should be excluded from the purview of Title IX, allowing colleges to strip funding from no-revenue-getting teams, men’s as well as women’s. To me, the second story makes much more sense. I’ll take the real economic victory of cheaper tuition and solvent athletic programs over the fleeting moral victory of an athlete of any gender being able to get a .25 scholarship to play games that few people attend, watch, or follow.

Update (02/15/10). As Times blogger Tara Parker-Pope reports today, sports participation really does seem to improve life outcomes in adulthood. While this finding contradicts my original conclusion in this post, it leads to another less-than-rosy implication: because of low overall (organized) sports participation rates in college – see above – athletic programs should become even less profitable to level the playing field between current athletes and non-athletes.

Read the rest of this entry »

Oh, the humanities!*

March 8, 2009

Not too long ago, Thomas Benton (pseud.) made a splash with his exhortation for undergrads with humanities majors to steer clear of graduate school. He wrote, at the end of January,

Nearly every humanities field [is] already desperately competitive, with hundreds of applications from qualified candidates for every tenure-track position. Now the situation is becoming even worse. For example, the American Historical Association’s job listings are down 15 percent and the Modern Language’s listings are down 21 percent, the steepest annual decline ever recorded. Apparently, many already-launched candidate searches are being called off; some responsible observers expect that hiring may be down 40 percent this year.

Now, per the New York Times, doctoral candidates – especially ones with humanities degrees – are facing almost impossible odds against securing academic employment, let alone the coveted tenure-track position. Particularly,

Many in the humanities fear that their fields are going to suffer most [in the economic downturn]. Humanities professors are already among the lowest-paid faculty members, according to the Humanities Indicators Prototype, a new, decade-long effort to establish a database of information led by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. What’s more, nearly half of all the positions are part time — with no job security and no benefits — a situation that many educators expect to worsen.

Some may argue, in a fit of functionalism, that such a painful contraction in the demand for humanities Ph.D.’s is a necessary market correction for the oversupply of “unnecessary” degrees. As the argument goes, the academic study of the humanities is a luxury the value of which is quickly depreciating. Stanley Fish uses this reasoning to suggest that the humanities should take pride in their lack of utility:

To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good.

However, both Times readers and other fans of the humanities repudiate the notion that the humanities serve no purpose. As Jarrod Hayes at Tenured Radical writes,

The claim that the Humanities do not serve a utilitarian or policy purpose is rooted in the belief that human societies can be managed without regard for the very things that make them human. Societies, and the people within them, are influenced and shaped by their individual and collective pasts and the ideas generated within and without society cemented in poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction. Utilitarian efforts to understand and explain policy, the mechanisms of governance, and the interactions of societies cannot be undertaken independently of these humanistic elements. We in the social sciences—particularly in the study of International Relations, that most policy-oriented of the social sciences—rely on the work of the Humanities every day.

While Fish argues that the humanities are wholly useless, Hayes replies that the humanities are innately necessary and enriching to society. This pro-and-con argument is not quite novel, but the acute worsening of the job market for humanities Ph.D.s is giving it new life – and, it seems, giving more ammunition to the side that would argue the humanities cannot be justified.

When many humanities Ph.D.s cannot find jobs, and when most cannot claw their way into the tenure track in their fields, there is something to be said for attacking the way humanities departments do business. In principle, however, Hayes is right – humanities do have a use in cultivating critical thinking and cultural understanding. What remains, then, is a marginalist critique of the state of the humanities today:

  • At the graduate level, there are too many doctoral candidates competing for too few jobs. Humanities departments, who bear at least some responsibility for the careers of the students they train, can explore ways to limit enrollment, ways to improve academic placements, or ways to train and direct their students towards non-academic jobs.
  • At the undergraduate level, humanities departments are not giving students the rigorous education promised by humanities’ advocates. Many students emerge from English classes with poor writing skills, and from Philosophy classes with a poor command of logic. Worse yet, many humanities majors – superficially qualified to pursue advanced (graduate) study in the humanities – complete curricula that are lacking in rigor and are rife with grade inflation.

    At the end of the day, some quantity of humanistic education and humanities professors is probably not only good but also necessary. However, would-be defenders of the humanities might find wider support for their cause if they acknowledge the twin problems squeezing the humanities: a lack of suitable jobs for graduate students, and a mass of (former) undergrads left with the belief that “the humanities” mean easy classes with no tests, on subjects they could care less about.

    * Not surprisingly, another blogger beat me to the pun.