As a student at a private university I had a sneaking suspicion that the magic between the pages of our great books had nothing to do with the cost of tuition, but had much to do with the generous heart of the instructor -- no matter the setting. I think I was right.
I spent the fall of 2013 enrolled at a community college in Texas trying to discover what you really get when you pay the most in the world of higher education -- and what you get when you pay the least.
By day, I was a junior English major at Southern Methodist University, one of the nation’s most expensive private universities. By night, I was a commuter student in an American literature class at Richland College, a nearby community college. An English class at my university cost over $5,100, while at Richland it was only $153. While at SMU, after a few false starts, the liberal arts had come alive through accessible professors and vibrant class discussions, something near the fantasy of "Dead Poets Society" but with textbooks too expensive to be able to justify tearing out any pages. As the semesters passed, I began to wonder about the extent to which this experience was tied to the amount I paid for it -- what do the liberal arts look like on a budget? What does a literature class feel like at our most accessible institutions? I went to find out.
The most important thing I had done at SMU was to go to my English 2312 professor’s office on a Friday afternoon and tell the truth. The truth was not that I was unprepared for college, but that I simply didn’t like college. It’s a different world up there, my mother had warned. I must have misplaced the map. And I didn’t know if I wanted to stay at SMU. I wondered how I would I ever begin to come to terms with this whole college thing -- what it was for and how it could ever be worth the cost. These are hard questions to ask during the best years of your life, which is what they called college in the movies I had watched. But I couldn’t recall a scene where the freshman pulled doubts like rabbits from a hat and turned them into answers for his soul.
The teacher was there, door open and waiting, just as the syllabus had promised under the heading of “Office Hours.” My purpose was to discuss my second paper -- a postmortem. Tim Cassedy, a young assistant professor recently arrived from New York, observed that it seemed my high school had prepared me well for college writing -- an innocuous compliment to most students. But for me it was an invitation. The proper response is to say "thank you" and indicate how happy you are to be at college now instead of that dreadfully confining high school that taught you how to form simple paragraphs. I hesitated for a second, half-inclined just to agree, give the correct answer, and continue with the conversation. But another part of me, the honest part, wanted badly to tell the truth.
I began to unpack my situation, my confusion, my questions, my longing for something more from my college experience than just velvet green lawns and affluent classmates. And Professor Cassedy listened. He didn’t dismiss or diagnose. He didn’t tell me that everything would be O.K. I was surprised to find that he seemed just as interested as I was in finding the answers to my questions and wishful thinkings. He understood. I got better. And I became an English major.
That moment saved college for me. If I had decided not to tell the truth that afternoon, I could have continued to accrue credits and eventually a degree, but I wouldn’t have been to college. Something significant would have been missed and valuable time wasted. I went back to his office another time and again I was reassured and challenged. I went back again and again and the door was always open. All of my big and important realizations were tested there; made sharper through discussion, questioning and that ancient practice most simply known as “teaching.”
Three semesters later I was at Richland, looking again for a way to understand college. My search led me to a green armchair. You nearly trip over it when you walk into Crockett Hall 292, but its importance there has more to do with symbolism than functionality. Near the halfway point of the semester, I decided to go to the office of my English 2326 professor, Mary Northcut, and try to tell her the truth about why I was taking her class and the answers I was seeking. I say “try to” because I didn’t know whether it was even possible to experience this part of the professor-student relationship in the way I had at SMU. There were office hours listed on the syllabus, but how could my professor, who was teaching six classes that semester, possibly have the time or energy to engage meaningfully with her students one-on-one? I was mistaken in questioning her availability and commitment to her students, and along the way I found that I was wrong about many other things as well. Important, life-changing conversations are happening at community colleges too, and I was lucky to have found myself in the middle of one that afternoon.
Professor Northcut has been teaching at Richland College for nearly 40 years. After completing a doctorate at Texas Christian University, she immediately devoted herself to teaching outside the spotlight but inside a social mission. She first taught at Bishop College, a historically black college that later closed its doors in 1988, and then at El Centro College before transferring across the Dallas County Community College District to Richland. At some point during her decades-long stay she must have acquired this green padded chair, the arm of which served as my seat during our hourlong talk. She was a fascinating conversation partner, possessing the tendency toward eccentricity that marks college professors everywhere. Between exchanges on the nature and purpose of higher education we discussed her love for horses, East Asian cinema and collecting Ancient Grecian coins. (In fact, it seemed I had walked into her office at a crucial moment in an eBay bidding war over a coin bearing the image of Phillip II of Macedon.)
But what deeply moved me, largely because I had foolishly believed that it couldn’t possibly be true, was this important truth: Professor Northcut wants to be at Richland and she is there on purpose. She is convinced that community colleges serve a vital purpose in aiding the best and brightest students who lack the resources to attend four-year schools right out of high school, or perhaps got sidetracked along the way. By her description, Richland exists explicitly to help those students find their way to universities and brighter futures. She is not at Richland because she never found a better job, or to collect a few extra paychecks before retirement. And she certainly does not see her students as the caricatures they often become in our higher-education debates -- representatives of broken systems; too unprepared to make it at a “real college.”
She knows them to be just as capable of academic success as any other students. And she has an astounding track record of helping her students take the next step. Professor Northcut is full of stories of her students, many of whom she describes as being like her own children, going on to schools like TCU, SMU and even Columbia University. To her, Richland College is a serious place with serious goals, and despite decades of changes and challenges, she is no less committed to its mission now than she was as a newly minted Ph.D. joining the ranks of socially conscious community college faculties in the 1970s. She told me she plans to keep teaching full-time for the foreseeable future and to retire later, reducing her teaching load to only “one or two classes” per semester. Two classes per semester is the ordinary teaching load for professors at SMU and most other elite colleges.
As I sat listening to all this on the arm of the green chair, worn threadbare by the pants of many students before me, I was overwhelmed with an awareness that the ancient art of teaching had found a home in this small office also. And the stakes in this office were much higher, the problems more pressing and the margin for error more perilously thin than perhaps in most of the offices at SMU. Futures were forged here not from an abundance of advantages but out of a struggle for a fighting chance. I don’t consider it an exaggeration to say that lives were saved in that office, in addition to the moments of intellectual growth we expect from any college experience. And most important for me, I left with that same feeling I had found my freshman year in Professor Cassedy’s office -- that the world is full of complexity and college is here to help you recognize and make sense of it. The best professors show you how. The best professors are everywhere.
I can no longer assume that office hours and compelling professors are the exclusive property of private universities. But of course, I cannot guarantee that they exist at every single college either. I can only claim this: I am a product of office hours and great teachers and truth-telling, and I would not pay for a class, be the cost $150 or $5,000, that doesn’t include the chance to find an open door and welcoming ear whenever the questions become too large to face alone. This is the difference between a degree and an education.
Preston Hutcherson is an undergraduate English major at Southern Methodist University.
Debra Bean, associate provost at National University, in California, has been promoted to provost there.
Michelle Behr, acting dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado, has been chosen as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Birmingham-Southern College, in Alabama.
Three weeks after a trial over the NCAA’s use of college athletes’ likenesses ended this summer, U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller’s Commerce Committee began hearings on the welfare of athletes and included testimony from NCAA President Mark Emmert. Amid the senators’ skepticism and the professed need for congressional oversight, Emmert once again promised more change to come and referred to the hearings as a “useful cattle prod.”
The expressions of frustration, resignation and cynicism became so evident that one senator referred to Emmert as a mere minion for college presidents. It is clear that the NCAA is experiencing an era of discontent and public distrust. Emmert’s promise of corrective change amounted to no more than a power grab by the so-called Big 5 conferences, giving increased autonomy to the wealthiest schools to further maximize revenue.
The NCAA has once again demonstrated that it is incapable of self-reformation and in need of a complete overhaul from Congress. It is time to repeat history.
From 1888 to 1978, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) controlled open amateur sport in the United States. It represented the United States in international sports governing bodies and selected U.S. teams for world championships and the Olympic Games. The AAU created eligibility rules and defined “amateurism,” strictly controlling what athletes could receive in prize money, sponsorship or other forms of support. Athletes possessed little or no power to question AAU rules or sanctions levied against them for violating such rules. Athletes rebelled in opposition to antiquated rules of amateurism. Sound familiar?
In his book, The End of Amateurism in American Track and Field, Joseph Turrini provides the following description of the state of affairs in open amateur sport and the dissatisfaction with AAU governance in the mid-1970s, prior to the United States Congress’s intervention. It could very well be used to describe the current state of affairs between athletes and increasingly wealthy NCAA football bowl subdivision institutions.
When the 1970’s crested, athlete opposition emerged as a much more potent force as the athletes took advantage of new resources in their efforts to force their agenda…..
The poor treatment of the athletes by the governing bodies and the unresolved institutions conflict between the AAU and the NCAA pushed a reluctant federal government to abandon its support of unilateral and independent AAU control. In the 1970s the federal government shifted from cooperative mediation to legislation and legally mandated institutional changes to address the conflicts in track and field and to protect athletes.
In 1975, the President’s Commission on Olympic Sports was formed, and this effort resulted in the 1978 Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act that established a federally chartered nonprofit organization, the United States Olympic Committee, to replace the AAU.
The NCAA membership has established a plutocracy in which a minority of the wealthiest institutions controls a constant escalation of wasteful spending and extravagance. In 1997, the membership ceded control of the NCAA to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), a 121-member subset of a 1,061-active-member association, caving in to the threat that FBS institutions might leave. This strategy was repeated in 2014, by the 65 most wealthy institutions known as the Big 5 Conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference , the Big 12 Conference, the Big 10 Conference and Pac-12 Conference), who so far have been successful in demanding more autonomy and control.
The 121 bowl subdivision institutions have used their power to block the NCAA from establishing a national football championship at their level, and instead, have established the College Football Playoff that is wholly owned by the FBS conferences.
Unlike the NCAA Final Four basketball championship, which provides funds to benefit all NCAA athletes, the highest level championship in football and its $440 million four-team national championship playoff media revenues are not owned by the NCAA, and its proceeds are lining the pockets of conference commissioners, athletics directors and celebrity coaches instead of benefiting all NCAA athletes.
More disconcerting is the abject failure of the NCAA to retain a nexus with the educational missions of these Division I programs and a clear line of demarcation between collegiate sports and professional employment, as demonstrated in the federal court’s ruling in the lawsuit mentioned above.
Specifically, university presidents at our country’s most prestigious academic institutions deliberately waive admissions requirements for elite but often woefully academically deficient athletes and clear them for participation without insisting that they first achieve minimal reading and writing skills necessary for academic success.
NCAA President Emmert’s often-touted promise of a world-class education as payment for their services morphs into an educational travesty. Presidents’ lockstep support of the fortunes of football and men’s basketball is self-serving and counterintuitive in relation to their institutions’ best interest and educational mission.
Football and basketball programs are routinely requiring 40 to 50 hours of sport-related activity during the regular season, making it almost impossible for serious academic achievement and curricular exploration. Athletic departments are running opaque academic support programs in which staff have direct conflicts of interest from managing athletes’ eligibility by seeking easy classes and friendly professors to ensure their continued participation on the field or court to control of legions of tutors who bring into question the authorship of athletes’ classwork.
Even our finest public and private institutions, like the Universities of North Carolina and Notre Dame, have been rocked by academic fraud scandals and flagrant institutional mismanagement of academic oversight. First-year competition of admitted athletes should be tied to those whose academic profiles are within one standard average of the student body of the institution rather the woefully inadequate current NCAA qualification standards.
Practice should also be limited to no more than 10 hours per week for those students needing remediation. A standard for participation measured against the student body of the institution sets academic primacy over athletics and affords the opportunity for remediation of college readiness before imposing competition on the athlete. Recruiting highly marginal athletes would become a lower priority for coaches if the elite athlete would be restricted from competition and limited from practice.
Athlete health protection should be a critical focus and it isn’t. With concussion-related lawsuits growing, Congress is beginning to realize the NCAA has lost its way and our children are being placed at continued risk of mistreatment. The NFL limits contact practices in football to twice per week while no similar restrictions exist for college sport. College football players at all division levels are at similar risk of brain injury.
Even the USOC has a code of conduct governing the behavior of coaches, while NCAA coaches are offered no such guidance with regard to prohibiting the physical, verbal and mental abuse of athletes. How long will Congress wait for more young people to be harmed?
Given the current state of NCAA and institutional mismanagement of highly competitive football and basketball programs, the U.S. Congress should immediately act to establish a federally chartered organization to replace a dysfunctional NCAA to protect college athletes in the same way that it did to protect open amateur sports athletes in 1978.
Failure to become a member of the new organization could render the institution ineligible to receive federal funds under the Higher Education Act of 1965. Congress should mandate that the new organization have the exclusive right to establish national championships for its members in all sports, including FBS football, and to use these proceeds to advance the health, welfare and academic success of college athletes rather than provide multimillion-dollar salaries to coaches or fuel the arms race of lavish exclusive and unnecessary athletics facilities.
Specific mandates could address athlete health and medical protection and tenured faculty oversight to prevent academic exploitation. By strictly limiting practice and playing season participation, athletes could return to being students rather than putting in 50-hour weeks as employees.
Further, Congress should exempt this new organization from the antitrust laws so rules capping sport operating expenses, limiting expenditures on coaches’ salaries and wages, prohibiting building athlete-only facilities and other rules that combat commercial excesses in college sports do not result in lawsuits requiring millions of dollars in legal fees or judgments.
Such an antitrust exemption needs to be strictly limited and conditioned on athlete protection and reform requirements including improved due process processes for athletes and coaches accused of violating athletic association rules, whistle-blower protection for faculty, students, and others too afraid to report rules violations, and national championship revenues earmarked to provide increased scholarship benefits and athletic injury insurance for all college athletes.
Just as the Congress replaced a dysfunctional AAU in 1978, it should act now to repair a failed college sports model whose leadership has repeatedly demonstrated incapacity to secure educational primacy or welfare for the athletes it serves. Rather than using a cattle prod to stir NCAA reform, perhaps Congress should put them out of their misery and start afresh.
Donna Lopiano is president and founder of Sports Management Resources, a consulting firm, and former president of the Women's Sports Foundation. Gerald Gurney is assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies and former head of academic support for athletes at the University of Oklahoma.