The Drake Group

Robert Maynard Hutchins Award

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 19 April 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Maynard Hutchins Award
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.

William 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 beginning.


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 status.

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 fraud—or burglary, or assault, or rape, or under-the-table payments by boosters—has 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. But—and here's a point that seems to me worth stressing—he 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 Community College.

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.

And finally—and sadly, if my memory happens to be correct in this case—I 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 activity.

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 Tressel.

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 players.

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 media—what 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 model—and when I say this I include the Ivies and others that had the advantage of several centuries head start—for 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 about."


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, Connecticut.

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.


Thank you. 

 

Copyright 2012 (c) W.C. Dowling