A Great Idea, Strangled by Bad Ones

This fall’s COVID shambles is laying bare an awful lot of things about higher education that had long been comfortably ignored by the day-to-day habits of moving forward in a normal way. We’re discovering that really bad politicians make really bad college presidents in those states that were misguided enough to have elected them in the first place. We’re discovering the power of peer pressure, that as soon as the Big 10 conference cancelled fall sports, the Pac 10 followed within an hour with its own announcement of the same decision. You go first… no, YOU go first...

We’re discovering that we didn’t really need standardized tests after all, since they really mostly measured family income. The information provided by the SAT was redundant to that from the IRS.

We’re discovering that the “college wage premium” is no longer a reliable investment, but that the loans taken out to get that promise are non-negotiable.

We’re discovering that tenure-track faculty will not now nor ever take concrete steps on behalf of their contingent colleagues. In a time of fear, everyone scrambles for the lifeboats, and the weak will drown.

We’re discovering that any college leader found doing vile, criminal things is gently protected and sheltered in order to protect the reputation of the institution. It isn’t until years, or decades, later that we discover how many victims were silenced, and how many professional colleagues knew and did not speak.

We’re discovering who gets the golden parachute, and who gets the brick.

We’re discovering that a university will be brought to economic panic for reasons that have nothing to do with education. Because its “teaching hospital” lost half a year’s revenue of lucrative elective surgeries, or because the TV licensing for its football program didn’t come through. We’re discovering how gigantic and invasive the parasites have become… and we’re discovering that the endowment must never ever be touched. We may be in a torrential storm of unseen scale, but the “rainy day fund” will be kept dry before any of the members of the community.

In an epic rant published yesterday, sportswriter Drew Magary argued that our current moment provides the perfect opportunity to kill off college football forever, and with it the NCAA, which has reliably proven itself to be always anti-educational. (Sally Jenkins said the same thing in The Washington Post.) But one line in Magary’s piece yesterday was larger than that. He wrote: We’ve reached a point in history where it’s crystal clear that American universities are where corruption goes to get laundered. 

College sports is big and visible. But college sports is not alone in stealing time and money and attention from the real work of higher education. We have constructed a massive, beautifully outfitted sailing ship, and have forgotten the destination.