Fumbling the Ball in Higher Education

“What starts here change the world.” The famous slogan inspires thousands of students to flock to the world-renowned University of Texas in pursuit of higher education. UT is heralded by the academic community as one of the top research institutions in the world, ranking No. 14 for the first-year experience, No. 16 for best undergraduate research, and No. 12 on the nation’s list of “Most Innovative Schools.”

Accompanying such an array of scholastic honors, UT proudly houses a faculty of intellectual powerhouses who truly do change the world. Professor John Goodenough of the Cockrell School of Mechanical Engineering was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of the lithium-ion battery, which powers our iPhones, computers, electric cars, aerospace and military technology, and countless other applications. The Nobel Committee called this breakthrough a “decisive step towards the wireless revolution.”

For such an outstanding achievement, UT lit the Tower with its celebratory burnt orange lights to honor Professor Goodenough’s research and impact; that is, until football took precedence. The UT Communications webpage celebrated John Goodenough’s achievement with a slight caveat: “During the special Tower lighting, the sides of the Tower will display ‘Li+’ to recognize Goodenough’s work developing the lithium-ion battery. That special lighting configuration will begin at sunset and will then change at 9:30 p.m. to reflect the outcome of the UT vs. TCU football game that afternoon.”

I get it — Texas football is important. But shouldn’t a lifetime of dedicated research that actually changes the world be celebrated over the outcome of a college football game?

UT is hardly alone. In a revealing article published in 2017 by the Quartz, David Labaree explores the collegiate phenomenon of sports culture. He accredits the rise of sports to the university’s need to attract students (and with them, their invaluable tuition money), a practice that dates back to the early 19th century when American colleges could depend on neither reliable state income nor sponsorships from church bodies. Instead, they had to rely on the source of student tuition payments and alumni donations. To create a more stable source of revenue, the colleges created their name brand through sports, giving them access to a loyal fanbase’s purse.

The reasoning is acceptable at face value but still distressing. When a university prioritizes the means of supporting its academic institution over the institution itself, it seems to undermine the purpose of the university. Most students go to any given college for higher education, not to root for a particular football team on Saturday afternoons. And, given the monumental discoveries that its researchers uncover, UT is not solely reliant on its athletics as a measure of its prestige. 

However, this begs the question: is prestige truly the goal of American universities? Anti-intellectualism and distrust of higher education splits the American public. In a poll published in a 2017 article in The Journal of Higher Education, only 14% of Americans have a “great deal of confidence in higher education,” and 20% of adults have “hardly any confidence in how colleges and universities are run.” 

Many factors drive this growing divide, from political affiliation, to religion, to racial backgrounds. Only 11% of Evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and Jews report confidence in higher education, compared to 15% for everyone else. Liberal respondents had a 30% probability of having a great deal of confidence, while extreme conservatives only had a 5% probability. Finally, black Americans had less confidence in higher education than white Americans.

These disapproval ratings pose a real threat to colleges across America that rely on state funding or private donations to support their growth. In 2015, Louisiana Governor Jindal recommended an 82% cut in higher education funding, purporting that Louisiana State University was “unlikely to find allies among the public because it was composed of large proportions of conservatives, Evangelicals and African Americans.”

So, how do American universities cope with widespread public distrust of the foundation of their institutions? You got it — football games and athletics programs. A news report in the National Bureau for Economic Research found that “…football success increases a college’s alumni donations along with its academic reputation and the quality and quantity of applicants.” Football carries the popular appeal that cuts down the halo of elitism around higher education. So, rather than universities like UT relying on the prestige of their gifted faculty and celebrating notable achievements in science and technology, their football games take precedence.

It is an upsetting fact of reality that stems from the inescapable reliance upon the American public. When legislators cannot find support from their constituents to support state higher education and fewer American families have confidence in universities, colleges and their institutions suffer the consequences. As the United States’ education system lags behind our international peers, we can only hope that football can carry the future of scientific discovery and institutional research along for the ride.

Categories: Campus, Culture

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