Friday, September 23, 2011

football, "moneyball," and the universities

One of the fascinating things about academia is the disconnect between what people say and what they do.   In theory, universities exist to provide things of long-term value that aren't adequately provided for in the surrounding society.   In fact, they are subject to the same destructive trends as anyone else . . . or more so.

Two examples have recently caught my eye.   The first and larger is college sports (especially football).  University Presidents have recently been in the news, not for new research facilities or Nobel Prize winners, but because they have final say--and are sometimes the prime movers--in the realignment of athletic conferences.   The latter are, increasingly, designed solely for revenue purposes with no pretense of regional rivalry or educational synergy to speak of: TCU last year joined the Big East, while Oklahoma and Texas were seriously considering the Pacific 12.    The Universities defend these moves with reference to terms like "branding" and "revenue streams" that have little if any relationship to their academic mission.   At many or most schools the highest paid individuals are the President and football coach (not necessarily in that order): professors rank far behind.

A second, more limited example pertains to my own field of tax law.    An number of tax professors have decided that theoretical scholarship is passe and embraced an "entreprenurial" model--what used to be self-promotion--in which an ability to generate electronic downloads and blog hits is the sine qua non of academic success.   In an especially entertaining twist, several of them write articles and blog posts on the ranking process itself, which then lead (or so they hope) to more hits and downloads, which they then report in a sort of never-ending cycle of trivia.  The scholarship of such people, if such it may be called, is laced with terms like "moneyball" and "added value" that make the sports and business analogy that much clearer.

I wouldn't begrudge people their success: it's a free country and, if universities want to pay professors to rank each other, or administrators to trade football conferences, they surely have the right to do so.   But they should do it with their own resources, without tax exemption and without contributions from alumni that are (in turn) subsidized by tax exemption.   The purpose of the exemption for educational institutions is, well, education: people are free to play all the "moneyball" they want, but not with someone else's money.

There is also a point here about competition and globalization.  Every week or two we see a new survey suggesting that the US is behind everyone--China, Israel, Bangladesh--in educational achievement.  Is that really any surprise when our universities are organized around football and our law schools self-promotion?  I don't know much about Chinese universities, but I'll bet that football plays a relatively small part in the admissions process.   And blogging even less.