When the New York Times reported that Ohio State had just signed a new football coach, paying him $4 million yearly plus bonuses, putting a private jet at his disposal, throwing in a country club membership and the other accouterments of an opulent (many would say decadent) lifestyle – a seven-year package valued at nearly $40 million – the venom in the reader responses practically dripped off my computer screen:
” The nation's false values could not be more graphically displayed by this action…”
“What a terrible waste of money.”
“This is unacceptable and perverted.”
“I am appalled at this contract. I hear from my daughter that [Ohio State] academic programs go without funding and needed supplies.”
And on and on and on…..
The Times readers have it right. By brazenly capitulating to the grotesque arms race in college sports, Ohio State has tossed its academic values into the trash bin. It has betrayed its faculty and cheapened the degree of its three hundred thousand alumni. Forget education. Forget research. Forget public service. At Ohio State the name of the game is football.
Am I taking this personally? You bet I am, and here’s why. I was a professor and administrator at Ohio State for twenty-six years. As a department chair and dean I worked my butt off trying to raise academic standards, recruiting talented faculty, raising money to strengthen programs, writing research proposals, and singing the praises of my department and college to anyone who would listen. For twenty-six years I sat through endless numbers of meetings, wrote thousands of memos, agonized over budgets, did my best to make smart decisions – and I did all this because I wanted to do my part to make the university – my university – better. My son was born in the Ohio State hospitals, my wife and ex-wife are Ohio State alums. Our family bleeds scarlet and gray.
So how do I feel about Ohio State’s decision? I feel like the university has turned its back on what I spent most of my career trying to accomplish.
Here’s how Ohio State President Gordon Gee rationalized this move: “I’m about having the best physics faculty, the best medical school faculty and the best football coach.”
Well, Gordon, you’re my friend and former colleague, and I don’t want to get personal, but you know and I know that’s pure baloney. That spin may play in some quarters, but it sure doesn’t with your thousands of current and former faculty members. Where we expected you to stand up for the academic heart of the institution, you cheapened it. Instead of using this opportunity to restore balance, you embraced the madness. Instead of acting courageously, you capitulated to the corrupt sports materialism in college athletics that is anathema to the university’s core academic values.
Sure, you’ll find thousands, maybe millions, of Ohioans who applaud your decision. For them it’s all about winning games. But for me, and for the young Ohio State economics professor laboring over a journal article, or the senior chemistry professor fighting to renew an NSF grant, or the debt-burdened medical student, or the tens of thousands of Ohio families struggling to put their kid through Ohio State – to us, this issue isn’t about football. It’s about the priorities of the institution. It’s about what Ohio State University really stands for. And now we know.
Symbolism matters in academia. In some ways, it’s more important than anything else, and understanding that is what we expect from our academic leaders. Ohio State has had more than its share of sports scandals, and these are deeply embarrassing to many Buckeyes, including me. At a time when there is public outrage about the culture of impunity in major collegiate programs, at a time when Americans are fed up with the excesses, the greed, the win-at-all-cost mentality, the hype and the hypocrisy of college sports, it’s high time for college presidents to speak out.
Now it’s time for them to say “that’s enough” and to reject the corrosive influence of out-of-control sports on American higher education. Now it’s time to rein in the excesses and restore some sanity to campuses. To stand up and defend the academic heart of the university. To put one’s money where one’s mouth is. At Ohio State, that’s a lesson yet to be learned and that fact makes me sick at heart.