07 March 2006

Against Universities and High School Football

The modern education sector, at both the high school level and the higher education level, is a big fan of the conglomerate business model. They feel the need to be all things to all people and to have a feudal like involvement in the lives of the students whom they see as subjects.

For example, why must amateur athletics be so tightly linked to educational institutions? It doesn't have to be that way.

Baseball players can enter the minor leagues right out of high school. But, aspiring football and basketball stars must pay their dues by pursuing a college degree and not receiving any compensation for the valuable performances (which often provide significant profits to their education institutions and coaches), despite the fact that many very good athletes also happen to be mediocre students even with ample tutoring. (NPR's Frank Deford offered a commentary in the same vein on March 8, 2006.)

High school sports, meanwhile, are routinely held hostage by school administrators to get the next bond issue passed (they are always first on the chopping block, yet rarely seem to actually be cut), and the endless pep rallies, sock hops and homecoming games in connection with high school football, provide high schools with privileged, indeed, near monopoly control over the social lives of their students, in addition to their 8-3 classroom time. This also gives schools leverage over their students that it isn't clear that they should have (e.g. as a way to force their students to take drug tests or as a way to punish misbehaviour in school by disqualifying someone from a team).

This also doesn't have to be the case. Hockey and ice skating, for example, are in Denver, at least, generally organized as club sports unaffiliated with the school system. In Europe, soccer, which fills the cultural space that American football does in the United States, is also generally organized as a club sport apart from the school system. There is something to be said for Ed Quillen's wry observation that:

So many schools these days have eliminated music and art programs.

I can't even think of a practical economic rationale for such cuts, since I know many people who make their livelihoods from music and art, while I've never known even one professional football player. You'd think that if schools were preparing children for careers, they'd keep the programs that offer the most career possibilities.

It isn't that I'm opposed to youth sports. I spent years in municipal soccer leagues and swimming and diving teams growing up, and it is a healthy habit. It may even be an activity that deserves a public subsidy. But, it isn't at all obvious that the tying sports into the politics and power of the public school systems is the best way to go about organizing sports competition. At the higher education level it puts unfair pressures on athletes. At the secondary level, it unduly monopolizes students social lives for a purpose that isn't closely tied to education.

But, this issue is really far broader than sports. The recent Supreme Court case FAIR v. Rumsfield affirming the legality of the Solomon Amendment, which requires universities to provide access to military recruiters or loose federal funding (adopted in reaction to the fact that many law schools banned military recruiters due to the fact that the military discriminates against homosexuals), showed the downside of a big university. The bigger the university is, the greater the extent to which anyone with leverage over any aspect of its operations can hold any aspect of the university hostage over policies that they would like to see. For example, legislative discontent over Professor Ward Churchill's controversial statements about 9-11 has the potential to influence University of Colorado's funding in areas totally unrelated such as a law school capital funding drive.

Indeed, in the case of the Solomon Amendment, much of the money at stake for the universities in question was in the form of grants to parts of the university other than the targeted law schools, while "a handful of smaller law schools that do not have any such funds at stake are expected to maintain their bans on military recruiters." Why should engineering departments with big federal grants be impacted by affairs at a law school that happens to be under the same university umbrella? In a large university, such as the University of Michigan, which I attended, more or less autonomous graduate schools are little more than neighbors in any case. They don't share libraries, admissions policies, classrooms, recruiting policies, or students.

Similarly, it is still hard to understand why universities choose to have any form of affiliation with fraternities and sororities, which routinely burn them with embarrassing incidents of drunkenness, hazing and rapes, rather than simply washing their hands of them and treating them as simply another form of private housing outside the province of university affairs. Indeed, it isn't entirely clear why academic institutions should be in the housing and dining business at all.

Big multipurpose retailers, like Target and Wal-Mart have also experienced the downside of getting into too many lines of business, as controversies over emergency contraception in their pharmacies has impacted customer attitudes towards the remainder of their businesses. And, one of the worst decisions Sears ever made, which was instrumental in its decline from prominence as a major retailer, was its decision to require its customers to use only its own Discover card (rather than the Mastercard and Visa accepted in every other store in the malls where it did business) for purchases for many years. Yes, mergers can provide benefits, but merging for the sake of merging is usually a bad idea.

The accounting industry has been burned by the conglomerate philosophy as well. Tax consulting and business practice consulting, which makes up the larger share of what big accounting firms do, generally benefits from a large scale and involves relatively few conflicts of interest. They can create intellectual property in the form of new tax shelters or securities law compliance systems once, and devote the rest of their efforts to marketing them. Auditing, in contrast, which doesn't actually take anything close to the massive staffs of big accounting firms, is an area where conflicts of interest and overcozy relationships with big clients can pose a real problem.

Law firms routinely control their size to avoid conflicts of interest within their firms. The largest law firms are large not because they have so many more clients than smaller firms, but because their clients are so much larger entities (big law firms overwhelmingly represent big businesses and people affiliated with those businesses in some manner). This doesn't have to come at the expense of sharing services. For example, one major law office building in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood includes access to a law library in the rent.

Hospitals are an even more decentralized model. Anyone who spends any length of time in a modern hospital learns upon receiving the bills that hospitals are basically glorified motels with a highly skilled staff of nurses keeping an eye on the guests, while everyone else involved in the operation from the doctor to the physician's assistant, to the laboratory testing samples, to the radiologist, to the anesthesiologist, to the ambulance service, is an independent contractor who bills separately for his or her services.

Likewise, the original model for a university was likewise far more decentralized than the modern American university. Oxford and Cambridge in England are both a collection of semi-independent colleges that are situated close to each other, with separate admissions policies and their own faculties, that have limited federal agreements on their overall policies in certain areas of common interest. But, one needn't step on a plane with your passport to see similar arrangements. Denver's own Auraria campus has multiple institutions as a single campus, Amherst and Smith Colleges (among others) are part of a cooperative arrangement of independent institutions in Massachusetts, and a number of institutions including Pomona, Claremont McKenna and Harvey Mudd have a similar arrangement in California.

In each case, one can receive the economies of scale that can come from a large institution (for example, by independently choosing the same third party maintenance company to maintain their facilities), without facing the difficulties associated with the risk that one part of the enterprise will cause a burden for another. Such risks are particularly great when academic freedom is at stake.

Institutionally, sciences and engineering are among the least controversial aspects of a university. Certainly, there are controversies about science issues, especially in the case of biology and medical sciences, but even then, science education for K-12 students tends to be more controversial than scientific research at universities. And, they are also the parts of a university which are most dependent on grant funding. Laboratories aren't cheap and the basic research done in universities reduces the number of students professors can teach.

In contrast, the humanities and social sciences departments, which are frequently controversial, because they deal with human affairs and policies, are also quite inexpensive to operate. A philosopher can do his work with a few hundred dollars a year for a library expense account and an office little larger than that of a cloistered monk. The controversies they generate put them at little risk of purse strings blackmail, because their purses are small and a tenure system limits the ability of legislatures to shrink those purposes without making a big, politically damaging stink.

In summary then, while it makes all sorts of sense to keep many educational facilities (and sports facilities) in a geographically compact space, the justification for having them all under the same institutional umbrella is weak and may represent a threat to academic freedom, by making institutions more subject to economic pressure from a variety of other parties.

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