A moral cesspool: Dave Zirin on Notre Dame

It’s not just Notre Dame, of course. There is rot at the heart of collegiate athletics. Well, given Lance Armstrong, what happens with injuries in the NFL, and major league baseball’s coverup of steroid use, it permeates all of sports. But Zirin has pursued the scandals at Notre Dame fearlessly and writes:

Yet as with the far more serious previous scandals attached to this storied program, the problem is not just the behavior of students but the moral compass on display by the adults in charge. Within hours of the story breaking online, Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick held a press conference where he backed Te’o to the hilt saying, “Every single thing about this was real to Manti. There was no suspicion. The grief was real, the affection was real, and that’s the sad nature of this cruel game.”

Swarbrick revealed that a private outside firm had been hired to investigate just who had perpetrated this “cruel game.” The athletic director even cried. His behavior only raises more important questions than anything Te’o will face tomorrow. Why hasn’t there been any kind of privately funded, outside investigation into the alleged sexual assaults committed by members of the football team? Why was there no private, outside investigation into Coach Brian Kelly’s role in the death of team videographer Declan Sullivan? It says so much that Te’o’s bizarre soap opera has moved Swarbrick to openly weeping but he hasn’t spared one tear, let alone held one press conference, for Lizzy Seeberg, the young woman who took her own life after coming forward with allegations that a member of the team sexually assaulted her. Swarbrick’s press conference displayed that the problem at Notre Dame is not just football players without a compass; it’s the adults without a conscience. Their credo isn’t any kind of desire for truth or justice. Instead it seems to be little more than a constant effort to protect the Fighting Irish brand, no matter who gets hurt.

The cost to higher education is not just moral; it is also financial. A study released this week provides shocking evidence of how much more is spent on athletics than on academics:

Football consumes much of the athletic budget. At institutions competing in the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision, the report found, median athletic spending per athlete was $92,000 in 2010, compared with median academic spending per full-time student of less than $14,000. In the other Division I subdivisions, median athletic spending per athlete ranged from $37,000 to $39,000, compared with median academic spending per full-time student of about $11,800.

Think about that the next time you watch a game on TV. For my friends in academe, think about that the next time your dean asks you to cut your budget….

How not to restructure–lessons from the UVA disaster

I’ve followed the story about the ouster and reinstatement of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan quite closely. It’s a fascinating tale, full of intrigue, missteps, and people power. One interesting perspective from a faculty member (Siva Vaidhyanathan) is here

There are a number of ways to think about this–a battle over restructuring, the corporatization of the university, another episode in partisanship. I keep coming back to something else, our own debates over restructuring in the Episcopal Church. Of course, the situation is rather different (we’ve got no billionaires trying to call the shots), but there are similar tactics in play–secrecy, cabals, power plays (from all sides). Some of the rhetoric is the same, too. We’ve got to change because of the rapid change in our society, for example.

There’s probably also another parallel, the question of mission. Whom do we serve, why do we exist? Those questions are always at the forefront of debates in the church; they are also at the heart of the conflict in the academy right now.

Vaidhyanathan has this to say about the mission of higher education:

Universities are supposed to be special places where we let young people imagine a better world. They are supposed to be able to delay the pressures of the daily grind for a few years. They are supposed to be able to aspire to greatness and inspire each other. A tiny few will aspire to be poets. Many more will aspire to be engineers. Some will become both. Along the way they will bond with friends, meet lovers, experience hangovers, make mistakes, and read some mind-blowing books.

Does that sound wasteful? Does that sound inefficient? Nostalgic? Out-of-sync with the times? Damn right it does.

Perhaps the best lesson we might learn is how not to go about restructuring. The problem at UVA is that the Board of Visitors did not engage the entire university in the conversation about restructuring. Look what happened. Let’s avoid that one.

Culture Wars in Universities

Colleges and universities are in the news (It’s commencement time, I suppose). And some of the news is about commencement. A furor over Georgetown’s invitation to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius to speak. More here.

St. Francis University of Steubenville has announced it will no longer offer health insurance to its students, ostensibly because of the contraception provision in the ACA. But it turns out that the decision is largely financial, and they will continue to offer insurance to their employees.

At Shorter University in Georgia, a furor over the requirement of staff and faculty to sign a statement of moral behavior–. Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of the story; a story from Huffington Post on a librarian who has refused to sign, and the website that is spearheading opposition. Shorter is one of many institutions caught in the middle of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and 1990s.

And, on a very different note–at another Christian college, the Biola Queer Underground.

And finally, my friend and mentor John O’Malley asks whether medieval universities were Catholic:

Were medieval universities Catholic universities? It is a question easier to ask than to answer. One thing, however, is certain: the contemporary grid for an “authentically Catholic” university does not neatly fit the medieval reality. There are even grounds for asserting that in their core values medieval universities more closely resemble the contemporary secular university than they do today’s Catholic model. If we are looking for historical precedents for that model, we do not find it clearly in the Middle Ages.

I still remember him saying in class some 25 years ago that the university was the one institution in the West that had never been reformed; it still functions in many ways today as it did in the Middle Ages. Shorter and St. Francis are both evidence that some modern universities are more benighted than medieval ones.

Why College Students Are Losing Their Religion – Conor Friedersdorf – Politics – The Atlantic

Conor Friedersdorf writes in response to an essay by Dennis Prager that includes the line: “the agenda of Western universities is to produce (left-wing) secularists.” It’s a silly piece, for Prager probably hasn’t talked to a lot of undergrads since he left college. If he spent any time on a college campus, he would realize that students’ values are largely shaped by eighteen years of immersion in American consumer culture, and if they “lose their religion” in college, it is only because they have left family, home, and community, and encountered in college new avenues for consumerism such as alcohol.

Friedersdorf wants to be charitable to Prager; he labels him “as thoughtful a voice as you’ll find on talk radio.” For Friedersdorf, the chief culprit in the losing of religion is the fact that college students leave home, family, and community, and learn that their religious commitments were largely the product of family and social pressure, and the desire for community. I think he’s right to place much of the blame on churches themselves:

If you’re someone who wants to see organized religion do a better job of holding on to young people – I have no strong preference either way, having friends for whom religion is the best thing in life and others for whom it’s been a terrible burden – the most problematic part of Mr. Prager’s argument is the lack of agency he gives to religions and their congregations. They’re cast as powerless in the face of university influence that is somehow made out to be irresistible.

But if four years of college undo 18 years of parenting and religious affiliation, perhaps the faith community’s tenuous hold is the problem, not the particular place outside its bubble where that hold evaporates.

I think Friedersdorf is exactly right. But I also think that there is a more subtle dynamic at work, too. For many young people, college is a rite of passage, a way of disengaging from their childhood and family and make themselves anew as young adults. If religion can’t help them make that transition, but instead seems to impede it, then religion must also be jettisoned along with other childhood values. Friedersdorf’s essay is here: Why College Students Are Losing Their Religion.