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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Disconnects Between Mission and Operations: Beyond Maryland Football

Maryland's Board of Regents tried to get away with something shameful, but other shameful things are happening daily on campuses everywhere.

November 1, 2018

Following the death of a player following a collapse from heatstroke at practice and news of “rampant cruelty and mismanagement in the program,” the University of System of Maryland Board of Regents decided to retain its athletics director and coach while essentially firing the university president who wanted them both removed.

The University System of Maryland Board of Regents made their priorities clear. University president Wallace Loh wanted coach D.J. Durkin gone, the board, on the other hand prioritized football. D.J. Durkin with his 10-15 record at Maryland and his $2.5 million salary was set to remain at Maryland until blowback and student and even player protests in the aftermath of the Board’s announcement led to a reversal on Durkin’s fate.

The news that the Board was willing to retain Durkin despite a player’s death might’ve shocked, but it shouldn’t surprise. It’s long been established that the raison d'être of schools in the Power 5 conferences is big time intercollegiate sports. The dirty laundry attached to this bargain airs on a weekly basis. Just seven days ago three assistant basketball coaches from Kansas, Louisville, and NC State were convicted of wire fraud for “pay-to-play” schemes uncovered last year.

The recently released book, University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education by Joshua Hunt reveals how what was an essentially cash bailout from Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight when the University of Oregon was in financial distress bought Knight control over operations to “maximize Nike’s brand and profits.”

This included Knight temporarily ceasing his support of the school and its football program when Oregon joined a group which expressed opposition to labor conditions at Nike facilities in other countries. When Oregon relented, the spigot re-opened. Knight famously paid for the entirety of the $68 million Football Performance Center. His donations to the school are well over $300 million. 

Examining these incidents reveals institutions who appear to have lost their way, having strayed from their missions as places for higher education where minds and spirits are nurtured in the interests of learning. There’s little doubt that big revenue sports and the money they command are corrupting. The very activity of football, in which the cognitive abilities of its players are almost certainly degraded with every play, is fundamentally incompatible with a goal of developing one's intellect.

I cannot imagine how the University of Maryland Board of Regents decision to retain Durkin can be reconciled with the values we claim for education.

I wish that football was the only area in which we see this disconnect between the values of higher education and the institutional mission versus the actual operations. Everywhere I look these days I see little connection between the values we claim versus what we’re actually doing.

The same day of the news out of Maryland, Gallup released the fourth iteration of its annual alumni poll. Previous research in 2014 had indicated that a significant factor in overall “well-being” post graduation was “workplace engagement,” and levels of workplace engagement were significantly improved if one had experienced things like “having a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams,” or “having at least one professor who made me excited about learning.”

The most recent research shows that only 25% of  alumni “strongly agree’ that they had that mentor who encouraged them to pursue their hopes and dreams.

The most common source of mentorship among those who did experience this was a “professor” at 64%. The next nearest category was staff member at 10%.

Mentoring was most likely to come from Arts and Humanities faculty at 43%, followed by Science and Engineering at 28%. Business came in at 9%.

To sum up:

  • Mentoring is important.
  • Only one-quarter of students strongly agree they’ve experienced mentoring
  • The chief source of mentoring is faculty
  • The most common source of mentoring faculty is the Arts & Humanities

The most productive well for faculty mentoring is also the one most subject to being staffed by contingent faculty for whom mentoring is often difficult, and when they do do it, it is entirely uncompensated.

Politicians and university boards say we must invest in STEM because jobs, jobs, jobs, while the evidence shows that the fields they’re happy to neglect may be the most impactful when it comes to engagement and therefore success on the job and happiness in life.

What else do we wish for students if not this?

The policies that are being pushed by governing boards, the initiatives that draw outside funding are, in reality, disconnected from the experiences which students find most meaningful.

I juxtapose the events at Maryland with the Gallup research because while I think it is easy to shake our heads over the clearly corrupt bargain Maryland has made over their football program, there is considerably less dudgeon over the day-to-day operations which are out of whack with purported values in less obvious, but I would argue, equally important ways.

My most recent post about the fact that the student loads for teachers of writing are routinely double (or more) than recommended disciplinary maximums is another example. Improving as a writer and thinker is supposed to be one of the most important things you can do in college, and yet we provide a fraction of the resources and human capital necessary to do it remotely well.

Also recently at IHE, John Kroger former president of Reed college engaged in a thought experiment on the $10,000 per year liberal arts education. The resulting discussion in the comments was varied and robust. Josh Kim picked up the idea and started crunching the numbers, declaring, “I’m having trouble seeing how the math works.” 

I’ll admit, I’m not all that interested in starting with the math, but Kroger’s thought experiment is a way to reveal the values that underlie one's beliefs about the purpose and operation of higher education institutions.

This is where I would like to see the conversation begin. What are our core values? What is the mission? How is that mission best expressed in the institution’s operations?

As schools – particularly public institutions – have been tasked with operating in a hostile atmosphere, the drift from mission has been justified as a necessity for survival. This is how we get to a three-quarters contingent faculty. This is how individual donors can call the shots be they Phil Knight or the Kochs.

I don’t know that this can be reversed. I really don’t. But I think the first step is to acknowledge all of the scandals, all of the disconnects between mission and operations.

Writing in the Washington Post about what went down at Maryland, Barry Svrluga says that the university should be “ashamed.” 

I agree, but I when I look around at what’s happening in higher ed today, I see lots of other things that are just as shameful. I sound like a self-righteous scold, and I hate it, but I’ve been railing about these things for more than six years here. I don’t know what it takes to break through.

When the next inevitable sports scandal comes out, maybe consider what we’re missing by focusing our outrage there.


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