Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What’s On Your Mind?

John Gardner
Four short, common little words. But oh what a door opener for conversation, if only we would take the initiative.
I think we need to ask this of our students (and colleagues) more often. If you did so often enough, it would convey to them, if nothing else, your expectation and assumption that something is indeed going on in their mind.
And that says a lot in a country that seems to be preoccupied this week of my blog with March Madness, a unique American preoccupation in the month of March with “college” (i.e. post secondary  institution level) athletics—in the sport of basketball in particular. I have been dismayed this week by how many more people I have heard speaking about March Madness than I have about America’s latest little war, against Libya, Congressional posturing over a possible government shutdown, and the most serious thing of all: as yet unknown potential fallout (pun) from a horrific environmental accident in Japan.
So what’s on your mind?
What’s on my mind are such things as:
1. The race to the bottom our country is headed pell mell on in a rush to cut all government spending for social services,  the societal consequences be damned.
2. The ever increasing obsession in my profession with the minimal standard of retention (=a C minus and a pulse, which says nothing about what people have learned, can do, and value added received).
3. The increasing inclination to measure institutional quality primarily through wealth and resources, amount of money raised, etc.
4. The cascading of stresses on our students from the havoc wreaked upon their parents by the Great Recession.
5. The lifeboat exercises underway on our campuses as we reel from politically mandated budget cuts.
6. My fears that the cuts on campus will mirror the cuts in the larger society with the result that we make war on the poor in the academy just as we have in the rest of the society.
7. The unfailing belief in better living through new gadgets. As Emerson wrote in the late 1840’s: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind”.
But, in spite of what’s on my mind, the students will be coming to us in droves again this fall, many not knowing what they want out of life with all the certainties falling around them, but still blindly believing that somehow the better life lies through us.

I am glad that I have more than the above on my mind. But many of our students have only these things on their mind. They need our help more than ever.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Musing About March Madness and Money Part II The Inequality of Commercialism in Big-Time College Sports

Drew Koch
Vice President for New Strategy, Development, and Policy Initiatives

This is the second part of this three-part blog on big-time college sports. 

In my first installment, I contextualized the overall commercial nature of Division I college athletics – particularly men’s football and basketball – and I made the case that this commercialized nature exploits student athletes. I also argued that, for better or worse, big-time college sports are (and will be) commercial, and thus it would only be reasonable to acknowledge this and use market approaches to benefit (as opposed to exploit) the student athletes who are filling coffers while they are not completing degrees.

In this blog installment, I delve a bit deeper into just who is being exploited by the inequitable big-time college sport system.

This inequitable situation – where student athletes get very little in return for the revenue that they generate for the “big-time college sports” complex – once prompted the former Indiana University and National Basketball Association star Isaiah Thomas to comment:
When you go to college, you’re not a student-athlete but an athlete-student. Your main purpose is not to be an Einstein but a ballplayer, to generate some money, put people in the stands. Eight or ten hours of your day are filled with basketball, football. The rest of your time you’ve got to motivate yourself to make sure you get something back.
Unfortunately, the number of players in big-time college sports who seem to “get something back” is not as large as it should be – particularly for those who play men’s basketball and football. For example, Zimbalist shared in Unpaid Professionals that the graduation rate for the four teams that went to the 1996 NCAA final four men’s basketball tournament was 25%; and that nine teams included on the final NCAA Division I men’s basketball top-twenty five list during that same academic year had a graduation rate of 0%.  That right, zero – an outcome that let Zimbalist to conclude, “Large numbers of student athletes . . . are harmed by the system because they get neither an education nor a degree.” 

While this conclusion is valid for nearly all athletes in big-time sport universities today, it rings seemingly louder for African-Americans who are disproportionately represented on the teams fielded by the big-time sport institutions. In Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University, Duderstadt commented, “Basketball and football are dominated by talented black players, whose representation in these sports programs far exceeds their presence elsewhere in the university.”

Adding to this line of thinking in his book Air Ball: American Education’s Failed Experiment with Elite Athletics, John Gerdy notes how participation in college sports, and the obtainment of a scholarship that goes with it, is largely associated with the promotion of educational opportunity by the broader public. However, Gerdy laments, “With black basketball and football players graduating in the mid 30 to mid 40 percent range, respectively, earning an athletic scholarship under the current system is little more than an opportunity to play ball.”  Gerdy concludes that American educational institutions perpetuate, 
a dangerous and counterproductive cultural myth. Specifically far too many parents and youngsters believe sports, rather than education, is the ticket to future success . . . This impact is particularly prevalent in the black community. One only needs to consider the previously mentioned NCAA graduation rates to realize that, in many cases, this is a cruel hoax.
This hoax runs deep – as many hoaxes do.  Citing a Harris Poll that reported “that an incredible 43 percent of high school African American athletes believe they will make the pros,” the sports commentator Frank DeFord asked, “How many of them are nurtured to think this way because all they hear and see about black collegians is associated with athletics?”  (Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates also commented on the “big-time sports as educational opportunity” hoax in Breaking the Silence, a 2004 opinion piece published in the New York Times.)

Hoaxes.  Exploitation. Profits without promised outcomes. All of this leads me to some “What if” questions.  That shared, you’ll have to read the upcoming third and final installment of this series – Musing About March Madness and Money Part III:
“What If” Questions – to learn what I ask.  For now, if the spirit moves you, please comment on what I have shared; and, as always, thanks for reading.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Take a Student to Lunch (breakfast/supper) and See Who Learns the Most

John N. Gardner
The day before I wrote this I had the serendipitous opportunity to ride for four hours in a car with three female undergraduates, who talked incessantly for every minute of the trip and taught me a great deal. At the conclusion of the drive, which was to take me from a distant rural campus to a regional airport, I offered to take my companions to dinner. Oh, I am definitely going to do this thing more often.
What a simple idea: take a student to a meal and just have conversation. I learned so much. I can always learn more. I will never know all I need to know about the student experience.
This experience reminded me of who I am compared to my students, in terms of social class background and how that may limit what I automatically or innately understand about my students. Like most college educators, I am definitely middle class, and more accurately upper middle class. In addition, I am an example of what sociologists call downward social mobility—i.e. my parents were of a higher class in terms of income, social economic status (SES) than I am. My own “class” experiences  makes me have to work harder to understand my students who are—or were—and some of whom may sadly  remain---poor.
I listened over dinner to the life stories of these three courageous young women, all of whom were from working class families in rural Maine. All of them had parents who were dealing with chronic unemployment, or under-employment, the fluctuations of seasonal employment, the impact of severe health problems, loosing property to foreclosure, changes in the local economy due to word-wide factors over which they had no control, the consequences of taking on debt through wanton credit card use, struggling to hold on to a first home in which they are under water, and more. These students are truly struggling to make ends meet to stay in college. They are the front line casualties of the Great Recession. But their courage, their learned optimism, their high aspirations, their desire to experience a different quality of life than their parents keeps them focused.
I couldn’t help but asking: could I have coped with what they cope with?
What do you know about what’s going on in your students’ lives? Why don’t you ask them to lunch and find out? One of the universal, cross cultural behaviors we all can engage in  that shows others they matter to us, is our willingness to sit down with them and partake of food, and other forms of concomitant nourishment.
This recalls for me an experiment we conducted back in the 90’s when I was still full-time at the University of South Carolina. We had a so-called “Brainstorming” group of innovative faculty, staff, and academic administrators, who met regularly to create new initiatives to improve undergraduate education. One idea we came up with was the desirability of increasing faculty/student interaction over meals. So we launched a program to recruit faculty who would be willing to have one meal a week, 16 weeks per term, with the University providing the meals. The cynics and skeptics said “no way the faculty are ever going to do that”. But we realized that the key was who made the ask. And we also realized that if we didn’t ask, we would create a self fulfilling prophecy and not have faculty eating with students. And, we reminded ourselves that most people love to be asked—even if they decide to decline. So we had a most distinguished senior faculty member, one who had been recognized for both teaching and scholarly excellence (Professor Don Greiner) make the ask. And we were flooded with volunteers.  Your campus could do it too.
At the very least you could go it alone. You are privileged. You have a full-time stead job in higher education, with benefits. You can take a student to lunch. I hope you will. The learning will be on you