As we start the New Year, Florida State University is in the headlines for two reasons. The first is that on New Year’s Day, in the Gator Bowl, FSU beat West Virginia. It was the final game of our coach, Bobby Bowden. The lead headline in the New York Times Sports Section is “Bowden Goes Out on Top of Shoulders.” The magazine Science also has news about FSU. “Recession Hits Some Sciences Hard at Florida State University.” We have just fired 20 tenured faculty and another 15 tenure-track faculty. And don’t think that these were just second-raters or indeed presume that any of them were. Included was Dean Falk, one of today’s leading paleoanthropologists and, among other things, the expert on the brain of Homo floresiensis (the hobbit). She got a pink slip on her 65th birthday. (Disclosure: Dean is a good friend. In this post I am absolutely not making a judgment about whether, given the firings, she was legitimately included or not. If you read the Science article, you will see that decisions were made on the judged vulnerability of departments, and she is a member of one such department, anthropology.)
I don’t know which item of news depresses me the more. At the best of times (and God knows when those are), I look upon collegiate sports in the USA, football and basketball particularly, as deeply corrupting. At FSU we are just emerging from a major scandal about football players taking courses that were rigged. Bowden lost some of the many victories with which he is credited. (Again: In this post I am making absolutely no judgments about who was responsible. These issues are still being contested.)
But of course the actual dishonesty is just a tip of the iceberg. Frankly, what any of this has to do with education beats me. I do know that there are aspects that I — and I of all people am not Mr. Politically Correct — find deeply offensive. Start with the Red Indian (and I use that term advisedly) who starts each game by plunging a burning spear into the ground and go on with the “chop” that the fans give throughout the game. Add in the drinking — Mike’s Beer Barn supposedly sells more kegs than any other outlet in the USA — and don’t forget, as is becoming all too certain, the damage we are doing to young men’s brains in the name of entertainment.
What really worries me is the obscene amount of money that is involved. That a football coach should make four or more times the money that our (FSU) president makes speaks for itself. Jimbo Fisher, the new coach, is getting $9-million over the next five years, more if his team wins. And don’t tell me that football pays for itself. If it does, it does so only because it has the FSU name and support of the boosters and others. And who might I ask paid for the massive stadium that is used six times a year? I don’t notice women’s intramural soccer playing there under floodlights on Thursday evenings.
The flip side to all of this is the other story. Now, let me make it very clear that there is no one better than I am running down and ridiculing university administrations. It was only at the last moment, in my last post on my love of American movies, that when talking of the baddie in Shane, I substituted for the thought that had he not been killed in a hail of lead he would undoubtedly have had a grand career in the higher levels of the American banking system, the alternative thought that had he not been killed he would undoubtedly have had a grand career in the higher levels of university administration. But I have to say that in the 10 years that I have been at FSU, I have developed a deep respect for the leading academic administrators at FSU.
Above all others, our provost Larry Abele has worked day and night to raise the level of scholarship at the institution and to improve the quality of teaching and much more. He is not altogether a nice man. He is a good man. The same is true of others. Joe Travis, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, for instance, is much involved in “FSU Teach.” The State of Florida is desperate for more and better qualified, school science teachers. Travis is leading an initiative to take science education from the College of Education, to put it in the College of Arts and Sciences, and to make sure that every new teacher has a full degree in a real science. (More disclosure: Joe is a close friend, we team teach together, and co-edited Evolution: The First Four Billion Years, recently published by Harvard University Press.)
And so what is their reward? I really think that politicians in Florida despise higher education. We have no income tax, we have all sorts of other fiddles like homesteading — Homesteading! I fully expect John Wayne to come riding over the horizon and to stop by for a mess of beans cooked by Walter Brennan — and we have the lowest fees of any state system. Not only do these Philistines fight tooth and nail against any increase in tuition, but, when it comes to cuts, first and foremost it is the university system in their sights. The $380-million state budget has been cut by $82-million in the last three years, and of this $55-million was cut this year.
Has our administration always made the right decisions? Of course not! Other Florida universities are using Obama funds to pay the bills right now, postponing draconian cuts and hoping that they will not be needed. Time will tell who is right. I am certainly not betting against the FSU administrators. But the point I am making holds either way. On one side of the campus, we have top-quality educators trying desperately to do the right thing in the face of massive financial cuts. On the other side of the campus, we have people awash in big bucks, part of an enterprise that strikes me as less than worthy in its own right and simply not the sort of thing that should be so deeply embedded in an institution whose goal is scholarship and the education of our brightest young people.
In a couple of hundred years, when the new Gibbon comes to write the Decline and Fall of the American Empire, I predict that a chapter will be given over to Joe Lieberman and his spiteful behavior over the Health Bill. A whole volume will be given over to Florida State University.