The University mission: punts or postmodernism?

The ongoing University football stadium debate is provoking a lot of reactions – both positive and negative. After the administration suggested students help fund a new stadium, more than a few responded with the old “I don’t get any benefit from a football stadium, therefore I shouldn’t have to fund it” line.

My first thought to a statement such as this is: So because I don’t get any benefit from the biology department, I shouldn’t have to fund it. “Wait a minute,” says conventional wisdom. “The biology department is an academic department and is therefore part of the mission of the University.” It’s this conventional wisdom that makes me ponder: What exactly is the mission? Are athletics a part of it?

I looked up the official mission statement of our fair University and found out one thing: It’s far too long. Generally, mission statements (at least in the business world) are supposed to be concise descriptions of what the business is. Here, we’re not too big on brevity. Thus our brief statement is a six-paragraph, 328-word behemoth that is supposed to quickly sum up what the University is about.

Luckily, the University also publishes a shortened version of the mission statement for those who don’t have space to print the whole thing. Here it is: “The University’s mission, carried out on multiple campuses and throughout the state, is threefold: research and discovery, teaching and learning, and outreach and public service.”

On the face of it, this mission doesn’t have anything to do with athletics. However, the mission also doesn’t say anything about opening an art gallery either, but there stands the Weisman Art Museum, an eyesore upon the East Bank.

Some will immediately respond to my exclusion of the arts by saying they fit under the general umbrella of academics – the quest for knowledge, the search for truth and all of that. But if we automatically include art in academia, why don’t we include athletics?

Athletics do the job of serving one certain function in the University mission better than any other department, that of “creating and supporting partnerships within the University” (a quote from the full mission statement). Athletics are the place where many people become part of the University community.

As far as I’m concerned, that spirit of community and coming together is as important as any other activity the mission statement mentions. If the University were just about classes, we could all go to school online and it wouldn’t matter. Rather, the University is as much about extracurricular activities as it is about in-class activities.

I’ve attended a grand total of zero lectures, exhibitions, seminars and the like in my years here. However, I’ve attended dozens and dozens of University sporting events – and I’m not alone in this type of combination. Athletics might not fit into the traditional “academic” mission of the University, but they’re important nonetheless.

Whether the University should use student fees to support a stadium is a question for another day. However, the opposition to such a move often implies athletics are not academically worth as much as the arts are, and that is inaccurate. You contemplate pointillism; I contemplate the three-point play. You study silk-screening; I study the bubble screen. But the assertion that your Shakespeare is worth more to the University than my suicide squeeze is just plain wrong.

Jon Marthaler’s column appears alternate Fridays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]