Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Irony and Incoherence in the "Professionalization" of University Education

The Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics (COIA) is an alliance of 59 faculty senates at NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision schools; for more information about COIA.  It has recently posted a response (reproduced below) to certain moves by the Athletic Department of the University of Kentucky.  See John Calipari, Forming a Non-Traditional Schedule for a Non-Traditional Program, CoachCal.com, May 6, 2012.

A Sea Of Blue
(From http://www.aseaofblue.com/)

The reasoning of COIA is sound, if we mean what we say about the presumptions and objectives if university education as a good in and of itself with connection to but not a direct subordinate connection to the needs of the labor markets into which a university would like to insert its graduates.  But I am not so sure we do mean this.  The professionalization of sports may be objectionable because it has become perverse through the application of the logic of the connection between student, program and employer markets to an unreasonable limit.  But to such that the professionalization of education is itself something that is either unique to sports or necessarily always wrongheaded may be to miss the point of some other related movements in university education that do not produce the same amount of hand wringing.

It is hard, on the one hand, to speak to re-imaging the university to be more responsive to the demands of employers and the market on the one hand, and on the other to condemn a program that is attempting, even in this somewhat perverse way, to attain that very end for a very specific set of employers.  Sometimes theory may require institutions to embrace incoherence in policy objectives and so to speak, from time to time, out of more than one side of their mouths. That may be one way to understand the COIA stance--as an attempt to distinguish what is transpiring in athletic departments from the forms of responsiveness to university stakeholders in other departments of the university.  Thus, where programs of professional studies are re-imagined to suit the needs of emerging technologies, industries, employer needs, markets and the like, this is viewed as a positive development.  But it is viewed as positive precisely because while the content may be radically altered the form of education delivery remains the same--and the institutional investment in its imagining of itself appears unchallenged. But Athletics is different precisely because employers and markets, and other critical stakeholders, would challenge the way in which universities occupy that space in individual development between high school and employment.

But another is to think of the issue for COIA as one of line drawing rather than of inconsistent application of principle.  But line drawing bounded by the acknowledgement of the power of professionalization as an important new principle of university education.  Consider the most profound admission of the COIA statement: "Programs designed with the balanced goals of the collegiate model cannot compete with this approach, and UK’s actions will place schools under enormous pressure to follow suit." When this result follows from the adjustment of other programs to suit the needs of the labor markets into which students are delivered, this is understood as a vindication of sorts.  The move toward the professionalization of education proceeds apace.  University officials brag about it when programs are reworked to produce appropriate responses from employers.  Penn State is no exception.  See, e.g., Teri Evans, Penn State Tops Recruiter Rankings, The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 2010.  And this is no criticism.

But Athletics are different--perhaps if only because the forces at play and the presumptions driving the logic of organization are so transparent. What is clear, though, is that the issue of professionalization ought not to be considered as merely a matter of the excesses of a successful athletics department.  It is a matter of general university concern and touches on everything from the shape of general education requirements to the re-missioning of campuses to suit the needs of local labor markets. Only in the face of this acknowledgement might an intelligent conversation commence about the value of Coach Calipari's audacious move.

I have meant to be provocative in my consideration of Coach Calipari's ideas and the COIA response.  The dialogue between them points to a place where an important discussion ought to be had--but one where such a discussion is unlikely to happen on its own as people use the masking languages of academic institutional discourse to avoid discussion of issues int he attainment of objectives or preservation of positions.

COIA Steering Committee Statement on the University of Kentucky’s New Policies for Men’s Basketball

The Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics (COIA) has long endorsed the collegiate model of amateur sports and opposed policies leading college sports toward professionalization. A recent alteration of policy at the University of Kentucky is the type of warning sign we would expect to see on the path toward a full professional model. On May 6th the Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari issued an online announcement: Kentucky will apparently demand that its non-conference basketball games be played off campus to provide better pre-professional training to its players, accommodate non-student fans, and increase revenues. Consistent with COIA policy, the Coalition Steering Committee calls for strong opposition to such policy changes from the NCAA leadership, conference commissioners, and Division-I schools, and we urge NCAA member schools to refrain from signing contracts with Kentucky on such terms.

According to Coach Calipari, UK is no longer a “traditional program” because it is designed to lose most of its “one-and-done” players to the NBA each year. Kentucky will therefore only sign short term contracts with non-conference rivals, and will require that both games in ” home-home” series be played off campus. He writes,
“[W]e are using the entire season to prepare us to compete for national titles. . . . Part of that means you’ve got to play in big arenas, you’ve got to play in football stadiums; you’ve got to do something to get them ready for a Sweet 16 or a Final Four.”
Benefits to UK fans are listed without consideration of the negative impact on students:
“[I]t benefits our donors as well as our fans that cannot get into Rupp Arena. For our K Fund donors, you will still have the best tickets and the best seats. . . . Instead of 20,000 at home, we bring 40,000 on the road.”
Following Coach Calipari’s lead, Kentucky cancelled its traditional rivalry with Indiana University because Indiana would not agree to move games off campus.

Kentucky has built its current basketball program entirely on the basis of professional prospects playing their required one-and-done year in college before entering the NBA. The program is no longer designed to provide students pursuing a college education the opportunity to compete, it is designed to train professional basketball players.

Now Kentucky is taking its professional model to the next level. By demanding as a matter of policy that non-conference games be moved to neutral sites that emulate professional conditions it is breaking the connection between campus and school sports and insisting that contracted opponents do likewise. Programs designed with the balanced goals of the collegiate model cannot compete with this approach, and UK’s actions will place schools under enormous pressure to follow suit.

We call on all those who support the collegiate model of athletics to speak out against this further move to professionalize college sports, and – most importantly – to decline to participate in such a separation of competitions from campuses. Even a “non-traditional” sports program needs opponents to play.

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