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It’s Always Football Season In Florida: Computer Season? Not So Much

May 1, 2012, 11:50 am

Every time the state of Florida expresses its contempt for education you wonder how things get worse for students in that state.  But they can. Although Education Week gave the state high marks for standards, assessment and accountability, and good marks for equity, two big F’s stand out: funding and college readiness. However Education Week forgot what the F in Florida education really stands for:  football.

Steven Salzburg at Forbes reported last week that the University of Florida flagship plans to save a cool $1.4 million by cutting its computer science department. (Hat tip to Comrade PhysioProffe.) As Salzburg pointed out, this is a strange way for the state to prepare students for the demands of a 21st century technology and information economy.  ”The school is eliminating all funding for teaching assistants in computer science,” he writes, and is “cutting the graduate and research programs entirely, and moving the tattered remnants into other departments.” If this doesn’t eliminate tenured faculty, it certainly encourages those who can get jobs elsewhere to do so since their capacity to do advanced research has been reduced to that of a faculty member at a mid-level liberal arts college. And while the graduate program has not been formally eliminated, top graduate students don’t come to Ph.D. programs where they would be expected to take on around $100K of debt for a degree that other universities would be happy to pay them to earn.

Simultaneously, this flagship state University will be training scads of students for well-paid employment in professional sports by dumping another $2 million into its football program. “The increase alone would offset the savings supposedly gained by cutting computer science,” Salzburg notes.

Experts in the matter of athletic programs have skooled Salzberg since the original post that these two budgets are entirely separate. Cuts on the academic side, they argue, have nothing to do with a budget increase for the football program.  Janine Sikes, of the University of Florida’s public relations office, responds huffily here that computer science is not being eliminated, only dismantled and distributed to other departments. The vast majority of savings come from eliminating teaching assistantships and the assignment of greater teaching duties to welfare queens faculty. I’m not against professors teaching a fair load, although Sikes is vague about how teaching duties are currently assigned, and how course relief is distributed to faculty under the current system. But Sikes’ clarifications don’t change the analysis, at least on the surface of things: teaching assistants are graduate students, graduate programs — where research is done — require them to staff large introductory classes where undergraduates need to have instructional help available to them one on one or in small groups.  So if this decision stands, computer science faculty who no longer have any support to do the research that provides a structure for innovative undergraduate teaching will vote with their feet.

I suppose it is irrelevant that, unlike the Florida Gators football team (whose members accrued 251 traffic violations last year and have developed a disturbing record of violent criminal behavior since Urban Meyer was hired to turn the program around), the computer science kids are talented and accomplished. Out of 1500 programming teams around the globe and 227 in the United States assembled to compete against each other recently, UF’s “Joe Thuemler, Jason Fisher, and Cheran Wu finished 1st in North America and 13th in the world,” according to the department website.

In contrast, Gator football went 7-6 last year, and was third in the SEC. The team may start its season without star tight end A.C. Leonard, who has just rejoined the team after an arrest for assaulting his girlfriend.  Leonard, according to the victim,”grabbed her by her hair and dragged her toward the front door, ripping out chunks of her hair and breaking a necklace in the process. The woman said Leonard then grabbed her by both feet, dragged her out of the apartment and locked the door[.]” Sweet.

If I were provost, would put my taxpayer money on the computer geeks.

But wait, let’s be fair. We may discover that the extra $2 million for football has come from a television contract or a private donor, since we are reassured that these are entirely separate budget lines.  But if this is the case, why do we still assume that high-profile athletic programs and college education still have any relationship to each other? Why does the football program claim to represent a university at all? And why pretend that the revenues accrued from BCS football benefit education? Because they don’t.  In fact, they seem to be detracting attention from the accomplishments of academic departments.

Over the weekend, as I mulled the Thomas Pynchon novel that big-time college athletics have become, it occurred to me to wonder whether it might not even up the playing field a little bit if football programs were evaluated in the ways academic departments are in today’s accountability culture. Here’s a little sketch of what that would look like:

  • Football programs would be asked to track how the training they deliver translates — not just to college degrees — but to actual jobs that students are hired for after they leave college. According to Business Insider, 2% of NCAA baseball players go pro, and that’s as good as it gets for any sport.  We might add to that dismal figure that, perhaps because of their lack of exposure to education, a significant number of men who do have a chance at a successful professional career as athletes go broke. But if there are claims to be made for the importance of football to a young person’s education, how might those be documented?
  • Football programs would be asked to account for how the financial aid they spend translates into college degrees and into careers.
  • Football programs would be asked to account for how many students who enter the University of Florida intending to play football are coached successfully enough that they make the traveling squad. Let’s compare the lack of attention to this issue to the current, and entirely justified, attention to why 40% of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field drop science altogether. What is the attrition rate for football? And how many of those laddies suited up for home games (you will see as many as 125 of them on the sidelines, and between 40 and 50 fewer for away games) are walk-ons who never see playing time but need to be equipped and coached at university expense all the same?
  • Football programs, like history departments, would be judged on how many student-athletes have the resources available to them to graduate with the BA in four years. Currently the NCAA allows five years of athletic financial aid, which allows players to lighten their academic load and — crucial for football — a redshirt year during which the player can undergo intensive training and learn the playbook. Do history majors have access to five years of full aid? Enquiring minds want to know.
  • Football programs would have a mission statement, a set of criteria for excellence, and a rubric for measuring whether they have met their goals.
  • Football programs would be reviewed by an outside panel of experts regularly. Academic departments typically do a self-study followed by an outside review on a regular basis:  Amherst College legislation requires this every ten years, Princeton every 5-7 years. Here are Grinnell College’s guidelines for review.  If football programs are this important to universities, why is there no expectation that they will meet rigorous standards of review?

Readers, what other forms of scrutiny to which academic programs are held might usefully be applied to football?

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