Columns » Bob Burtman

School of hard knocks

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In any workplace, employees prosper if bosses seek their advice, show appreciation for their labors and reward them for achievement. Happy hirelings tend to maximize their output and boost employer performance, as the SAS Institute and other employee-centric companies have consistently demonstrated.

Yet most institutions consider workers as annoying, if necessary, pests to be tolerated as long as they do as they're told and don't get any big ideas--like having input into key decisions. So it is at Duke, UNC and North Carolina State. The absurdist play masquerading as the ACC expansion effort reinforced the fact that, at the Triangle's three major universities, the faculty carry about as much collective weight as an unarmed security guard.

That may seem harsh, given that Duke President Nan Keohane and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser voted against the initial plan to add three schools to the conference as well as the final configuration of 11 schools. The "no" votes came after the UNC Faculty Council had voted to oppose expansion, and several Duke profs had expressed similar sentiments. UNC council Chairwoman Sue Estroff, the most outspoken and piercing critic of expansion, told The News & Observer that faculty feedback had made a difference. "At least we were able to slow it down," Estroff said.

Perhaps Moeser was swayed by his faculty, with whom he has been scrupulously trying to make amends since pissing them off by gifting former university counsel Susan Ehringhaus with a bloated severance package in the midst of a salary freeze. But as stewards of their respective schools, he and Keohane had other reasons to balk at the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech to the conference. Duke in particular stands little to gain from the expansion, except new pressures to spend millions in a futile effort to compete in football.

Even if Moeser and Keohane were moved by the profs, it wasn't more than a few millimeters. The attempt of faculty to have a voice in matters athletic didn't start with the revelation that they'd been shut out of the expansion plan. In December 2001, the UNC Faculty Council passed a resolution that called on ACC schools to enact athletic reforms proposed by the Knight Commission, a group of academic leaders that studied the conflict between institutions and their athletic programs. The reforms included removing corporate logos from uniforms, wresting decisions on game dates and times from broadcast networks, and banning schools with low graduation rates from postseason play.

Those reforms seem like a distant memory. Nike calls the shots regarding athletic equipment at UNC, courtesy of a $28 million contract that was negotiated without faculty knowledge; The N&O revealed that ex-basketball coach Matt Doherty had to don a Nike lapel pin when he appeared in public wearing a suit. Advertising, once off-limits at the Dean Dome, is now ubiquitous. Duke, UNC and N.C. State have invested almost $100 million to upgrade their football facilities in the last decade to keep up with the competition. Meanwhile, graduation rates for athletes are down, or static. Duke lowered its admissions standards for football players. And made-for-TV games scheduled by the networks continue to conflict with academic priorities.

Ironically, the Knight-inspired resolution was passed after the ACC had apparently begun secret negotiations on expansion that came to a head last month. Had administrators wished to include the faculty in any of those decisions, they had ample opportunity.

These are tough times for university faculty across the country. The chronic need to bring in cash has resulted in research partnerships with corporations that have raised questions about academic integrity. Studies in the medical field, for example, show that research sponsored by industry often yields results favorable to the sponsor. Budget woes have led to layoffs and benefit cutbacks. Personnel reductions have been coupled with expanded enrollment, increasing class sizes and instructor workload. Even the tenure system, which provides job security and guarantees academic independence, is under attack.

Faculty are the backbone of any good university. Though some students may be attracted to N.C. State for its recent football success, or Duke for its perennial Final Four appearance, most choose schools based on academic opportunity, which is most closely tied to the skills and reputations of the professors. It would be hard to know that by looking at the Web sites of the Triangle's big three, however--only N.C. State's has a page touting faculty achievement, and it hasn't been updated for more than two years. State's "achievement timeline," part of a slick PR campaign developed this year, lists a few faculty breakthroughs over the decades, but ends with the Wolfpack's victory over Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl.

About the only attention faculty seem to receive outside internal newsletters is when one of them screws up. Though an aberration in the vast world of university research, former UNC scientist Steven Leadon recently commanded front-page headlines after being accused of fraud for doctoring his results.

In such an environment, the snubbing of faculty in the ACC expansion debate takes on a more ominous dimension. When Wake Forest President Thomas Hearn told an N&O reporter that "we've had our best minds working on [expansion]," he inadvertently insulted most of the best minds the conference has to offer, elevating muscleheads like John Swofford above the dozens of accomplished academics whose lives have been devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. Hearn and his fellow chiefs ought to explain how Swofford is better equipped to predict the economic benefits of expansion than the talented economists at their respective institutions.

The perception of the relative importance of academics and athletics was perhaps most honestly expressed by hog baron and Wolfpack booster Wendell Murphy, whose name adorns State's new $23 million football training facility. The athletics program, Murphy told The N&O, is "the glue that binds us all together." That must have been news to faculty members, who had probably labored under the illusion that the university's academic programs provided a more encompassing adhesive.

In the big scheme, the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech won't have much affect on ACC faculty, except to disabuse them of the notion that their views matter (administrative lip service to the contrary notwithstanding). The cost of their athletic departments is largely underwritten by donors who would rather see their alma mater succeed on the field than in the lab, and very little revenue from the sports side trickles into the overall university budget. The majority of scholarship athletes will continue to see school as a vehicle to showcase their talents rather than as a means to a superior education.

And let's not pretend that faculties on balance haven't been turning their heads and coughing when athletes receive favored treatment that compromises their education. The stories that have hit the papers of grade-changing, excused criminal conduct and cash payouts are but a drop in the proverbial bucket. Faculty members are fans, too.

But it must be depressing to be confronted by hard evidence that universities are becoming ever more like the corporations they increasingly coddle, top-down enterprises where employees do little more than keep the gears turning. "A university is not a business," proclaimed N.C. State Chancellor Marye Ann Fox, censured in January by her faculty for canning two faculty-friendly administrators and forcing the resignation of the provost. "But on the other hand, there are business aspects of the university that I have to manage as if I were a CEO." Question for CEO-wannabe Fox: What component of a university is not a "business aspect" these days?

After the ACC deal was done, Fox issued a canned statement assuring that all was for the best: "The addition of these two exceptional universities strengthens the conference not only in terms of athletic competition, but also in fostering continued academic partnerships that will improve the lives of all our students." Held up against the comment of N.C. State faculty Chairman Philip Carter, who called the ACC expansion debacle a damaging embarrassment, Fox's glib words read like a big fat screw-you.

In anti-intellectual times, the intellectuals of the world have always found a refuge. In the Dark Ages, scholars retreated to religious havens and saved books from the book-burners. In modern America, the ivory towers and neatly trimmed hedgerows of the nation's universities have generally sheltered the professorial set from the disdain of the masses. In the Triangle, they may be looking for a new place to hide. EndBlock

Contact Burtman at burtman@indyweek.com.

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