Robert Maynard Hutchins
19 April 2012
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
I don't think I need
to say how honored and privileged I feel to have been chosen
by the Drake Group for this year's Robert Maynard Hutchins Award.
I was fortunate enough to have been present at the original Drake
Conference in Des Moines, Iowa in 1999. It was a historic moment
in the struggle against Div IA sports corruption.
Jon Ericson, through
whose vision and energy that conference came into being, has
already been honored with the Hutchins Award. So have Frank Splitt
and Linda Bensel-Meyers and Harry Edwards, and other names as
noteworthy as theirs. The high standard they set may explain
why my first impression was that this year's award must have
been based on a clerical error.
C. Dowling, acceptance speech, Robert Maynard Hutchins Award,
19 April 2012
In the interest of historical truth, then, let me say that I
want to accept the award not in my own name but in the name of
Rutgers 1000, the valiant group of Rutgers students, faculty,
and alumni who decided to push back when its Board of Governors
chose to plunge an old eastern university with a strong tradition
of participatory athletics into something called the "Big
East" conference in 1994.
The story of Rutgers
1000 is told in a memoir I wrote about the campaign. But, since
it includes a detail I didn't mention there, and since that detail
involves Robert Maynard Hutchins, I thought I might begin by
saying something about his relation to our campaign.
The name RU1000 referred to the specific goal of a tiny group
of Rutgers students and faculty in the mid-1990s. That goal was
to get one thousand signatures on a petition to the Board of
Governors, asking them to withdraw Rutgers from the "Big
East" conference and go back to playing the schools against
whom Rutgers had been competing for well over a century: Colgate,
Lafayette, Columbia, Lehigh, Princeton, Bucknell, and others
with a similar tradition of participatory athletics.
When I say the group was tiny, I mean tiny. The original Rutgers
1000 consisted of just three undergraduates. The faculty council,
as we called ourselves, consisted of me, John Gillis from the
History Department, and Norm Levitt from Mathematics. We faculty
members donated a bit of money so that the undergraduates could
run their petition as a paid advertisement in the student newspaper.
That brought in exactly seven signatures. It was not an auspicious
Then someone came up with an idea: what about getting a distinguished
Rutgers alumnus to endorse the campaign, and seeing if that generated
enough interest to justify going on with it. The alumnus we chose
was Milton Friedman, Rutgers class of 1932 and a winner of the
Nobel Prize in Economics. I was appointed to write him a letter.
When we didn't hear back from him for over a month, we drew the
obvious conclusion: Nobel Prize winners are far too important
and too busy to bother with tiny groups worried about commercialized
Div IA athletics at their university.
Then, one day, out of the blue, came a letter from Milton Friedman.
He'd been out of the country, he said. He apologized for not
having gotten back to us sooner. He'd be glad to give us an endorsement.
If you've read my memoir, you know what happened next. Sports
Illustrated, with its circulation of millions, ran a story
about the Friedman Statement. The New York Times ran a
story about Rutgers 1000 in its national edition. Letters from
Rutgers alumni around the country began to pour in. They quickly
formed a Rutgers 1000 Alumni Council, which went on to win a
landmark lawsuit against the Rutgers administration. Our Faculty
Council picked up over a hundred members. And more and more students
began coming in to add their names to the Rutgers 1000 petition.
I mention all this because, when Allen Sack called me about this
year's Robert Maynard Hutchins Award, it rang a bell. I went
to my files and took out the original letter that Milton Friedman
had sent us. Here's how the letter started: "Dear Professor
Dowling: I thoroughly share your and the Rutgers 1000 campaign's
views about the undesirability of professionalized athletics.
As a graduate student at the University of Chicago when Robert
Maynard Hutchins was president, I have a long background in believing
that professionalized athletics have no place at a university.
Accordingly, I shall be glad to serve as a spokesman for your
campaign." So, you see, the spirit of Robert Maynard
Hutchins has presided over the anti-sports corruption movement
at Rutgers almost from the beginning.
In thinking about this year's Drake Group award, I've found myself
thinking not just about President Hutchins's decision to abolish
football at the University of Chicago in 1939, but about how
different he was from anything we should now think of as a university
president. Or maybe it's not the people who have changed. Maybe
the office, under the pressure of commercialized Div IA athletics,
has become something radically different. In any case, given
the athletics scandals that occur so regularly these days, I
couldn't help asking myself what President Hutchins might say
if he were alive now.
You know these scandals. They happen every year: flagrant academic
fraud, robbery, assault, rape, and a variety of misdemeanors,
all featuring semi-professional athletes brought to campus under
the solemn pretense that they are "students," all recruited
on the basis of highly developed motor skills rather than academic
or intellectual ability, many mysteriously supplied with cash,
clothing, automobiles, jewelry, and other signs of adolescent
And you all know what
happens when one of these scandals comes to light. The president
of the university, who is utterly shocked to discover what has
been going on, fires the athletic director and a coach or two,
appoints an investigative committee composed of two local lawyers
and three members of the Chamber of Commerce, accepts the report
they issue as having permanently eliminated the possibility of
sports corruption here at Sargasso State University, and declares
the case closed.
What I mean in saying that it may be the nature of the presidency
that has changed since Robert Maynard Hutchins's day is this.
If we accept that, in the age of Bowl Conference Series football
and "March Madness" basketball, of semi-professional
franchises flimsily disguised as college teams, of a "National
Collegiate Athletics Association" that serves as the marketing
arm of the multi-billion-dollar TV-revenue-driven behemoth that
Murray Sperber labeled "College Sports, Inc" if,
I say, we accept that many, if not most, institutions in Div
IA are not universities at all, but merely the hollowed-out shells
of what were once respectable and very often admirable institutions
of higher learning, then it is clear that the person now called
the "president" of the university must be something
other than what Robert Maynard Hutchins would have understood
by the term.
Think for a moment about the imaginary Div IA institution I've
called Sargasso State University. Under today's rules, we all
know that the real job of its president is to serve mainly as
its public relations representative, issuing statements about
how Sargasso State is a "world class institution,"
sending out press releases about some recent award won by a member
of the Chemistry or Biology department, and making sure the web
site has pictures of happy students doing undergraduate-type
things, unrelated to athletics, like playing the piano or holding
test tubes up to the light.
Meanwhile, in the top
drawer of the president's desk, there's that script that might
be needed at any moment: shock and dismay that athletics corruption
could have been going on here at Sargasso State, immediate decision
to appoint an investigative committee, and finally the press
release about how the problem of rampant academic fraudor
burglary, or assault, or rape, or under-the-table payments by
boostershas now been permanently eliminated.
This is a bit of a caricature, I suppose, but I set it forth
to make a simple point. In any of the countless scandals that
have occurred since commercialized Div IA athletics came to dominate
American higher education, the president of an institution might
theoretically have taken the same option as President Hutchins
did in 1939.
Has the football franchise
at Sargasso State grown irretrievably corrupt? Is it so powerful
that the athletic director and the football coach now effectively
run the institution? Do what President Hutchins did. Eliminate
the football team. Has it been shown that members of the basketball
team have been kept "eligible" by an elaborate system
of academic fraud so corrupt that Sargasso State has become a
laughing stock in higher education? Do what President Hutchins
would have done. Eliminate the basketball team.
We all know this could never happen. A president who followed
Robert Maynard Hutchins's example in today's world would be fired
immediately. He or she would never again be hired as a university
president. Butand here's a point that seems to me worth
stressinghe or she would be able to face him- or herself
in the mirror for the rest of his or her life. In an institutional
setting that purports to set a high value on truth and integrity
in both life and the pursuit of knowledge, that doesn't seem
to me to be a negligible reward.
I bring all this up because, with President Hutchins in mind,
I recently looked back through my files to see how more recent
presidents have acted in actual cases. I looked, for instance,
at the case of Jim Harrick's basketball team at the University
of Georgia.. That case, you may remember, began with an accusation
of rape against Tony Cole, one of Harrick's players. But it quickly
opened out into a investigation of shameless academic fraud.
It was discovered that
Cole, along with others, had been kept eligible in courses taught
by the coach's son, Jim Harrick, Jr. The final exam in one, Principles
of Coaching Basketball, became briefly famous, granting academic
credit for correct answers to such questions as "How many
points does a three-point basket count for in basketball?"
and "How many halves are there in a basketball game?"
But let's not waste time on Jim Harrick and Jim Harrick Jr. Let's
look instead at Michael F. Adams, president of the University
of Georgia. Confronted with the rape case and the academic fraud
scandal, Mr. Adams expressed shock and surprise.
But then reporters pointed out that President Adams and Coach
Harrick had known each other since they'd both worked at Pepperdine
University in the 1980s. They pointed out that Harrick had been
fired at UCLA because he had been caught lying to administrators.
They pointed out that he had run into similar problems at Rhode
Island. And they pointed out that Harrick, when he was hired
at Georgia, had been announced as President Adams's personal
choice to run the Bulldog's basketball program. Given this long
and close personal relationship, they asked, could President
Adams really be as shocked and surprised as he purported to be?
In this case, Harrick senior and Harrick junior were fired. But
one is glad to report that, difficult as it must have been, President
Adams managed to survive his shock and dismay. Today, he is still
president of the University of Georgia. The Bulldog basketball
program is still in existence.
In the same year the Harrick scandal erupted at Georgia, another
president showed what sort of candidates are being chosen by
boards of trustees in the age of BCS football and March Madness
basketball. This was Robert J. Wickenheiser of St. Bonaventure
University. In that year, 2003, St. Bonaventure had a winning
basketball team, built around the play of Jamil Terrell, a junior
college transfer who had previously played at Coastal Georgia
Unfortunately, it was
discovered that Terrell, rather than having fulfilled the academic
requirements for junior college transfer, had come to St. Bonaventure
with nothing more on his transcript than a certificate in welding.
My files on this particular case are imperfect, so there are
points floating around in my memory that may not be exact. But
let me run over a few of them. I think I remember reading that
President Wickenheiser's son was assistant coach of the basketball
team at the time. I remember reading that President Wickenheiser
himself had a reputation for screaming at referees during basketball
games. I remember reading that evidence came to light that Jamil
Terrell and his welding certificate had been admitted to St.
Bonaventure by direct order of President Wickenheiser himself.
sadly, if my memory happens to be correct in this caseI
seem to recall that a member of the board of trustees, shamed
for his university and his own part in supporting Wickenheiser's
presidency, committed suicide.
Most people listening to me today will be aware that there have
been innumerable cases in which university presidents have acted
in cowardly or dishonest or hypocritical or brazenly cynical
ways when confronted with sports corruption. There's no need
to go through them.
But there is a need
to ask this: has the immense pressure of commercialized sports
on institutions of higher learning redefined the presidency in
such a way that nobody but cowards or hypocrites or brazen cynics
would think of taking the job? Or, to ask the same question in
a different way, if Robert Maynard Hutchins were alive today,
would he ever for a minute think about becoming the president
of a Div IA institution?
I'm going to argue that he would not. But first, let me give
a bit of a historical analogy. You may remember that New York
City in the mid-nineteenth century had grown so corrupt that
Boss Tweed, the all-powerful politician who ran Tammany Hall,
dropped all pretense of being anything but totally corrupt. He
controlled patronage, he controlled the city budget, he controlled
appointments from Police Commissioner down to postal clerk, and
he saw no point in wasting time on hypocrisy.
A retort he once made
has become famous. Faced by reformers who said they had new proof
of deep and endemic corruption in a city department, Tweed took
a puff on his cigar and looked them in the eye and said "What
are you going to do about it?"
Let me end by looking at two recent episodes that suggest to
me that we may have entered the Boss Tweed era in Div IA sports
corruption. The first concerns football coach Jim Tressel's program
at Ohio State. Or rather, it concerns the pious pretense that
at Division IA universities the president runs the institution,
while the football or basketball coach is in charge of an extracurricular
It is irrelevant that
nobody really believes this. What matters is the immense seriousness
with which state legislators and boards of trustees and alumni
groups insist that people pretend to believe it.
I'm not going to talk about Tressel's program. I researched it
extensively when writing my Rutgers 1000 memoir, and all I need
to say now is that it's a program I'd put without hesitation
in the Boss Tweed category: a coach grown so powerful that, no
matter how entrenched the corruption of his program, he was for
a very long time assumed to be untouchable.
What makes this latest episode amazing is that it wasn't the
behavior of Tressel's players, or Tressel's own complicity in
fraud or deception, that caused the uproar. What shocked and
dismayed and amazed the world was not Tressel's program but a
comment made by Ohio State's president, E. Gordon Gee.
You may remember the circumstances. Evidence had come to light,
as it had a hundred times before, that Ohio State wasn't running
a strictly amateur football program. President Gee's first response
to these new accusations was to state his complete support for
Then, as pressure mounted,
he reluctantly agreed to impose on coach Tressel a $250,000 fine
and a two-game suspension. At this point a reporter asked if
there was any chance that Tressel might lose his job. Gee's answer
became famous: "Are you kidding? Let me be very clear. I'm
only hoping the coach doesn't fire me."
That answer sent shock waves through the land. But it's worth
taking a moment to ask why. Gee was in effect just saying what
everybody knew, that he was one of those obedient administrators
whose job, whenever sports corruption erupts into the daylight,
is to appoint an investigative commission and then get right
back to issuing statements about how Sargasso State continues
to be a "world class institution."
Nonetheless, the message of the Gee episode was clear. Here it
is. It's okay to have Div IA programs that thrive on academic
fraud, with occasional episodes of rape and assault and drunken
mayhem. It's okay to preside over an institution that has lost
all academic and intellectual self-respect as the price of having
the football team go to the Tostitos Corn Chips Fiesta Bowl or
the Allstate Insurance Sugar Bowl.
But it is not okay to
say that the football coach is a more important person than the
president. That violates a taboo. And the taboo explains the
case of poor Gordon Gee. He speaks the one bit of truth that's
been uttered by a Div IA president in the last 30 years, and
the world blows up in his face.
This brings me finally to Donna Shalala, the president of the
University of Miami, who at first glance might seem to be an
exception to everything I've been saying. For President Shalala
is not an obedient nonentity. Quite the reverse. She is more
powerful than Miami's football or basketball coach, not least
because she makes a point of hiring and firing football and basketball
coaches herself. She is more powerful than her board of trustees.
Consider, for instance,
the recent episode in which a well-known Miami football booster
was reported to have given undisclosed amounts of money to players.
There were also reports that this booster had sponsored parties
and what one news account called prostitute-filled yacht trips.
Because of his close ties to the administration, the booster
was invited to travel on the team plane to away games. At home
games, he was permitted to run out of the tunnel ahead of the
As it happens, this
particular booster is now serving a 20-year prison sentence for
having swindled investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars.
But the stories about player payments and prostitutes left Donna
Shalala with a bit of a problem.
President Shalala, though, is an old hand at managing these problems.
There is a pattern. Her first move is to shut down her own contact
with the mediawhat in Richard Nixon's day was, if memory
serves, called "stonewalling." Her next move is to
make sure that nobody at the university talks to reporters.
In this case, reporters
tried to do an end run around the president's office by putting
in direct calls to members of the Miami board of trustees. But
President Shalala got there first. Leonard L. Abess, Jr., chair
of the Board, released an immediate statement saying that the
trustees backed her completely, and had been ordered to have
no further contact with the media.
Then, bypassing the
usual "shocked and dismayed" move expected of Div IA
presidents, Shalala took the offensive, releasing a five-minute
video in which, to quote one news account, "she is seen
at her desk, smiling and assuring the university community that
she is fully cooperating with the NCAA investigation." I
have not seen the video, so I am unable to say whether or not
there was, hanging on the wall behind her, a large portrait of
Boss Tweed puffing on his cigar.
In 1939, Robert Maynard Hutchins made a decision that played
an enormous part in building the University of Chicago into a
truly great institution, a university that in one important sense
remains a modeland when I say this I include the Ivies
and others that had the advantage of several centuries head startfor
every other in the land.
"It is one of the
few real universities in the United States," Stanley Katz,
then director of ACLS, said a few years ago, on the occasion
of Chicago's 100th anniversary, "a place that really functions
as a community of scholars." "Chicago marches to the
beat of its own drummer," said law professor Cass Sunstein
on the same occasion. "It has a real sense of what it's
It could be argued, I suppose, that most Div IA institutions
today also have a real sense of what they're about. They're about
doing everything possible to get people to watch semi-professional
athletes wearing the school's name running back and forth on
TV screens between the commercials.
They're about giving
local boosters and state legislators a tiny jolt of personal
self-importance when somebody at the airport recognizes their
Sargasso State University hat. They're about undergraduates getting
drunk and turning over cars and setting fires after football
or basketball games in places like Columbus, Ohio and Storrs,
The one thing they're
not about is giving young people a four-years' experience of
reading and learning and thinking, of expanding their intellectual
horizons in a way that will enrich their own lives, and the lives
of everyone around them, for a lifetime to come.
This last possibility, I think, is what Robert Maynard Hutchins
was seeing in his mind's eye when he abolished football at the
University of Chicago over seventy years ago. It is what no Div
IA president in office now sees, or will see, until the world
changes and American higher education at last succeeds in banishing
commercialized athletics from its precincts and, having done
so, succeeds in recovering its soul.
2012 (c) W.C. Dowling