Can You Fly, Higher Ed?

We’ve written a lot in this space about both higher education and sports, but there’s a great new article up at the Chronicle that brings the two together in a pretty unexpected way. No, I am not talking about the amazing story of Ohio State President and football booster extraordinaire Gordon Gee’s rapid fall from semi-respectability. Any chump who spends $64,000 of public funds on bow ties (and bow-tie-related goodies) deserves this kind of humiliation. Pieces that highlight the arrogance and corruption of athletic departments at many of America’s top universities (usually aided by college administrators with alumni dollar signs for irises) are a dime a gross. What’s less talked about is how the academic division of labor at most universities tends to replicate itself in athletic departments.

Meet Elwyn McRoy, the visiting adjunct lecturer of college basketball coaches. After I read Brad Wolverton’s account of McRoy’s journey up to this point, I realized that I hadn’t thought much about all those guys on the sidelines or benches who aren’t head coaches. Like the thousands of freshly minted (or long since chewed up) PhD’s who wander the country lusting after the tenure that they’ll never get, coaches without high-level connections drift back and forth across the country, and sometimes across the globe, chasing a ring that only appears to be made of brass. More often than not it’s thin air. The few that get lucky and latch onto the right coattails at the right time might become head coaches, but even this is tenuous, as small schools that have no business demanding that their teams compete with the big boys think that they are just the right coaching staff away from being the next Gonzaga basketball or Boise State football. And so most coaches just drift.

Like a lot of adjuncts, McRoy gets tastes of success, even the big time, that keep him coming back for more when it’s probably in his best interest (to say nothing of the best interest of his family) to give up the ghost. I won’t recap Wolverton’s whole piece because I think you should read it for yourself. I do have to quibble with one thing he writes though:

The NCAA limits Division I programs to three assistant coaches, which means that there are roughly 1,000 positions at the top level. Few professions have such a scarcity of jobs, and with so little staying power.

The rest of higher education is hardly so volatile. The history department doesn’t turn over every two years, nor do librarians. Even presidents, whose positions are some of the most transient, usually get five or 10 years to prove themselves.

A guy writing a piece in the Chronicle should know that the rest of higher education is this volatile. His own publication reports that 70% of the people teaching at American universities could be in different positions next year. While some schools treat their non-tenure-track faculty better than others do (I’ve been lucky to work at such places), the fact remains that there are thousands of Elwyn McRoy’s who teach math, composition, French, and physics. A lot of them do it at five schools at a time (if they’re lucky to find that many gigs), not knowing if any of those schools will rehire them at the end of the term. And most of their students have no idea that the people standing in front of them aren’t well compensated members of academia every bit a part of their campuses as department chairs. So while I completely sympathize with McRoy, and wish him luck at his latest gig, his story should make us think about what can be done to fix all facets of higher education before it races off the cliff it’s rapidly approaching.

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