Scandal symbolic of University degeneration

Dead-tired, so-o tall students finish basketball practice, hyped and inspired by the coach to think they are so-o good. And they really are good, competitive at the highest levels. Visions of playing in the NBA dance in their heads, success, stardom. Deservedly tired after a good day’s work. The American way.
Insistently other pictures enter their thinking, nagging, pushing loving visions away. Papers, essays, classes, get a degree, stay eligible to play the game at which they are so-o good. Papers, essays, not much energy left to concentrate on the ideas and knowledge of all of time. Skills of sport so beautifully honed — for some players, this above all.
Why am I here to pick up an essay? Why this course, why this university? I’m a pro; let me go do my thing, play my game. Essays, tests, I pass the greatest test every day. What a sham, a shame, and here I am kissing the feet of the place that would and should love me, what I do. Essays, tests. Ohh. Woe.
What’s really at stake in the basketball scandal at the University of Minnesota? Cheating? Collegiate athletics? Or is it us, our society and who we imagine ourselves to be in these so quickly changing times?
A deeper understanding of the scandal — as symptom of these times — might help us see the University and ourselves more critically. It might aid us to envision openings and emerging opportunities.
How can we begin to see ourselves as a part of the athletic scandals? The movie “Hoop Dreams,” developed by KTCA, depicts the lives of two talented inner-city Chicago African-American boys. We witness as they are moved from youth through high school as mercenaries in suburban basketball leagues that feed the bigger leagues in which Minnesota and the Big Ten partake.
Interesting, sad, exciting, tragic are the words that resonate in my thinking about the fate of these kids. The question, “Where are they now?” remains in our wondering about the idea of the would-be’s who have become never-were’s.
Two paramount issues: big money — its temptations and potentials for corrupting our institutions and thinking; and the emergence of a system of “stars” in which the few who emerge have risen on the backs of many whose visions of stardom create many sacrificial lambs.
Corruption! Face the fact that universities are really farm clubs for the big leagues, especially in basketball and football. Pay these kids who work so hard for the opportunity to earn big bucks in the NBA or NFL. If they want to be students, now or later when they have some time and energy, wonderful. University of Minnesota coaches and teams are competitive and entertaining. We got what we paid for. Personally, I loved watching Clem Haskins at work with his kids during the heights of competition.
Basketball stars — from competition to corruption. But note that we are complicit in lies that drift from sports to the world of thought and research where the star system has also taken hold. Here, money shapes directions for the University. It affects what subjects are praised and supported, what professors are promoted or left to drift.
In fact, we’re drifting away from the idea of a University that has its own sense of being and mission. Money drives the importance of subject and professorial integrity into a corporate model of competition and money. Students are re-named customers in a world of buyer-beware as their professors are removed from the student-teacher relationship.
The relation of students to professors and professors to their love of knowledge has become market driven. As teaching touches the future, the very idea of the future has become blurred and fuzzy for students who cannot find many actual professors who love knowledge, who might inspire students and futurity.
It leaves the University in a decreasing pyramid of stars. The sense of money to drive excitement and celebrity drives the sense of a hot elite University faculty that needs more and more money just to stay in the cold north. Commitment is passe to younger colleagues in particular, except to one’s personal career.
Students, parents, citizens seem left out. We are much like the would-have-beens who were used up in former moments of great hope that have given way to a bleak present, and a reality that feels like slow decline.
The reality of these times of great change is that all universities are caught up in the same system. We’re all watching one another to see what’s hot, what’s not. Watching to see what and who are in, what Michigan or Harvard is doing. But almost no one is thinking much about the future and attempting to envision a university that isn’t part of a system of money, stars and celebrity. Integrity — just now, a beginning discussion.
Here is where the openings might arise: In this rapidly changing time, the question of subjects, the curriculum, indeed, all of knowledge is truly being questioned as the nature of work, technology, globality are reshaping the world.
At a recent conference on transforming knowledge and the future of the university, I noted that many lament (or celebrate) the changing university, but there were only a few visions for the future. I was told that universities are slow and sludgy and cannot ever change, even as external monies are more and more defining us and changing us while we’re looking but not seeing.
One way to return to a sense of the integrity of the curriculum and the faculty is to take this large and really still quite good university and begin to stake out a new path to explore and determine. It needs to center itself about what I dub the Present Age: a study of these changing times as they are affecting our thinking and being. How science and technology, how cities, how the nature of work, how curing and teaching, how the world is to sustain itself — these could form a centrality of study at the University of Minnesota.
We need nerve, leadership and a vision of the future in which we will remove ourselves from the temptations of money and stardom which are external to the idea of a University. In this way, we can preserve what is good and important about a university that educates and inspires for the future.
Perhaps the president and Board of Regents are up to this challenge. It would be good to reinclude the idea of a university in our thinking about Minnesota and the Twin Cities as a cultural and corporate oasis, perhaps using basketball as a way to rethink ourselves.

Harvey Sarles is a professor in the cultural studies and comparative literature program. He welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]