Read It!

This Margaret Soltan take-down of the University of Oregon president is a thing of beauty.

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9 Responses to Read It!

  1. withywindle says:

    He uses rhetoric to emphasize the positive. She emphasizes the negative (with her own brand of rhetoric). Mostly they’re talking past one another. Even if her negatives do come true, and Congress does restrict educational loans to UOregon–something that seems unlikely–it won’t affect the truth value of the positives he cites. I know Ms. Soltan doesn’t much care for the current status of university athletics, and that they have a deleterious effect on university academics; I don’t particularly see that this current entry is a terribly strong argument for her views.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s a cumulative argument on her part. But seriously, the UOregon president’s piece is 100% empty–it’s not “accentuating the positive”. It’s content-free. There’s an argument to be made about how athletics fits into things, but that’s not it.

  3. withywindle says:

    I suppose I am naive. It struck me as boiler-plate, but not empty.

  4. Jerry White says:

    I’m a lurker on this blog, but this U of O thing has shaken me out of my passivity. Forgive the rambling quality here.

    I got my BA from the U of O in 1992, and in those days athletics, like frats, were present but more or less a non-entity. Our football team stunk (I vaguely remember us getting invited to a particularly marginal bowl game, once; the Daisy Bowl or something). We were proudest of our track team, which drew a few world-class Africans (during my brief stint on the cross country team, I can remember seeing a teenage Maria Mutola running intervals) and had a truly great history (Steve Prefontaine, Alberto Salazar, etc.), but drew nothing even approximate to the kind of fuss consistent with college basketball or football.

    And I must say I was really well-served by the U of O. I wanted to go to a big state school, but had no interest in sports (other than cross-country, the misfit geek of sports), frats, or other big-state-social-life kind of things. Because of the sheer size of the place I had an insanely wide variety of professors, ran a very well-funded film society, got involved with a few national activist networks, etc; because of the sheer size of the place I was also able to avoid the kind of touchy-feely forced intimacy that seemed to go along with small-liberal-arts-type education (my sisters both went to Grinnell). As I look back on the experience I do feel like I managed to get the every best of what a big public university can offer.

    And I think that the faculty that signed the statement that Frohnmayer is replying to are driven by a fear of losing that sort of experience. You can see the faculty statement at . So I share Soltan’s annoyance at Frohnmayer’s failure to engage with some pretty precise problems here, such as when the faculty point out that “The UO’s 2004 four- and five-year graduation rates, at 36.4 percent and 56.7 percent respectively, are significantly below our academic peers and near the bottom of the Pac-10. Oregon is the only Pac-10 school to be recently downgraded by the Carnegie Trust from the top tier to the second tier of national research universities.” These are major problems, ones that cut to the core of what the U of O was all about. When I knew it, it was not just CU on the coast. Indeed, I grew up in Colorado Springs, and made a very clear decision not to go to CU, partially because I wanted out of Colorado, but also because I didn’t want any part of the big-school football-frat-party environment which so defined that place (I have no idea what it’s like now).

    The job of a college president is to direct these sorts of macro-issues. What kind of place will the U of O be? CU on the coast? A soggy, mellower Michigan? An aspirant Northern Berkeley? I realise that they don’t phrase this sort of thing in terms of comparisons (how insecure, he realised sheepishly…..), but it seems to me that this is the level of decisions that they should be making. Presidents provide, in the immortal words of GHWB, the vision thing. And this sort of pious, lazy response to your faculty’s pointing out that the place is drifting into academic mediocrity makes it painfully clear that Frohnmayer, like GHWB (who appointed him to head the NEA back when I was the U of O), just can’t be bothered.

    So maybe the speech is boilerplate, maybe it’s content-free. Either way, Frohnmayer’s got some serious issues on his hands, issues with long-term implications, and this speech tells me that he just doesn’t care.

    Again, sorry for the ramble. Sentimental over co-ed days I suppose.

  5. Jerry White says:

    As I was driving home last night I remembered that it was John, not Dave, Frohnmayer, who ran the NEA under Bush père. Sorry.

  6. withywindle says:

    1. There’s no reason to say that the experience that Jerry White had as an undergraduate is mutually exclusive with relatively low four-year graduation rates, slipping relative research rankings, and more spending for an athletic team. (Frankly, I could image that high research rankings would correlate with less teacher attention for students.)

    2. This bit about Oregon slipping *relatively* does raise the question of whether it’s slipping *absolutely*. Is Oregon positively worse academically than it was a decade ago? Or have other peer institutions simply improved themselves at a faster rate? If the latter, there is some cause for criticism, but I think of a more nuanced, Burkean variety.

    3. Going back to the original letter from Oregon that started all this … I do find parts of it untrustworthy. It deplores the rising student-faculty ration – well and good. But it then, after talking about a 20% increase in student enrollment (which, incidentally, indicates UOregon is doing something right) rather dodgily brings in the phrase “without an equivalent increase in full-time faculty.” Presumably Oregon, like everywhere else, has relied a fair bit on adjuncts, gypsy profs, etc.–which may not be an optimal experience for the students, but is presumably better than nothing. The phrase twists from the interests of the students to the interests of the faculty–which may overlap, but are not identical–unpleasantly. Then they deplore the decrease in graduate students–when, at least in the humanities, one major line of criticism is that *too many* graduate students are accepted, without hope of a job, to satisfy professors’ professional egos, and that the number should be lowered. This would indicate Oregon might be doing something right. I also have no conception from their letter of precisely how much academic costs are in comparison with athletic costs, or how many Oregonians could qualify for financial aid (so many that the athletic scholarships would be a drop in the bucket?) I don’t know if the Biology Department’s office staff were necessary–and I do note that their budget has increased 47% in 12-13 years, which seems pretty solid to me. Furthermore, given scarce resources, *any* spending on athletics will always come at the expense of academics–and their line of argument inclines toward the (not very compromising) thought that athletics would be better off at zero spending. Athletic capital spending is high–but did Oregon have a low capital in athletics before the campaign?

    And so on. There probably are good and valid criticisms in the letter, but there are a number of slipshod and unconvincing arguments in it. It doesn’t strike me as categorically superior to the UOregon president’s letter. And since any argument by academics that we ought to put academics first is, um, predictable, I find it difficult to get emotionally behind it. If I were the UOregon president, I think I might say “Faculty whinging about their salaries again–the rest is boilerplate.” I’m not sure I’d be entirely wrong.

  7. Jmayhew says:

    This kind of argument-by-factoid is kind of tricky. It makes athletic department spending sound obscene. You could pay a severance package to a coach of a few million, enough to pay for secretaries for all the humanities departments put together. Probably the athletics spending is obscene, but it needs to be compared to a comparable area of the university, say liberal arts and sciences. What is their total budget, where does it comes from and what does it do? Educate x number of students at x amount per student. Where does the athletics department budget come from? (state money, tuition, donations, t.v. revenues). Where does it go? (salaries, buildings, travel, scholarships). Only with this information out in front can one have a serious discussion of athletics vs. academics. Then the questions can be answered. Does the athletics department lose or gain money? If it is a money-making enterprise how much of that money is simply channeled back into athletics? Do licensing fees on tee-shirts go to the university or the athletics department? Does success and publicity in sports result in more donations to the athletic department or to the university as a whole, and in what proportion? Does the “leverage” argument hold water? In other words, the argument that spending on athletics results in a net gain for the university in publicity and donations.

    We all have our gut instincts, but these are empirical questions. I believe a mediocre state school would usually remain mediocre even if athletics were eliminated completely. There wouldn’t be extra millions to spend because much financial support would dry up due to loss of political, community, and alumni suppport for the institution. Eventually you would have even less money.

    So then we need to have big-time sports. Do we need to spend that much on it? Well, it’s something that can’t just be done in a perfunctory way because it’s a big business and so you’re competing against other schools with obscene spending. So you are trapped in a way. If your sports team is bad it’s obvious. If some academic department slides into mediocrity or worse it’s not visible in the same way.

  8. Joey Headset says:

    If it weren’t for sports, the government would have already shut down the American colleges and university system. Think about it: they hate science, they hate education, they hate art, they hate literature, they hate liberals… they hate anyone who KNOWS anything. Pretty much everything that higher education is, they despise… and as we’ve seen, they aren’t shy about using the power of government to eradicate institutions they despise. Really, the only reason why they haven’t turned every major univerity in America into some kinda Vacation Bible School is because the only scenario in which I can imagine American citizens dragging our fearless leaders into the streets and hanging them from any convenient lightpost (as a citizenry with BALLS would have done years ago) is one in which the government took action that threatened Pro or College Sports.

    So I would submit that all you lefty types that rail against the prominence of sports at your institutions of higher learning consider carefully how far you want to push your point. Because, in America, higher education serves the following functions, listed in order of importantance:

    1. Permitting overgrown adolescents to drink and screw their way through their late teens and early 20s.

    2. Sports.

    3. Facilitating the coordination of “drum circles” that (scientists believe) keep the earth from falling off its axis.

    4. Providing a fertile testing ground for the nextgen drugs the CIA plans to use to subjugate the ghetto.

    5. Teaching people stuff.

  9. SamChevre says:

    I don’t know. I’m not a fan of big-time college athletics, but I thought Dr Soltan failed to make a comprehensible point.

    If (as Frohmayer’s letter states) the athletic department is funded solely with money it generates (from ticket sales, licensing, and targeted donations)–then that money wouldn’t be available for academics if there was no athletic program–it just wouldn’t be coming in at all.

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