Is there anything to celebrate about higher education in the 21st century? What are the most troubling issues facing America's campuses that have emerged in particular over the past twenty years? These questions cry out for thoughtful, scholarly answers. On the one hand, there are crises related to university finances, student financial programs are bogged down by endless congressional haggling, federal financial backing for important research and development has withered away to a significant extent, and scholarships and grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have not been able to meet the demand of qualified scholars (Thelin, 2013). On the other hand, according to the Knight Foundation Commission, many university presidents (if not most) are admitting that they no longer have control of their NCAA-governed athletics programs, and moreover, deans in medical schools are being urged to begin training medical students in the art of cooperation and patient empathy, a long-held concept that has apparently -- and sadly -- been lost in recent years as American medical doctors are concerned more with the bottom line (Thelin, 2013).
In addition to the troubles impacting colleges and universities today, there is also an enormous burden facing the students who attend the estimated 4,600 institutions of higher learning in the United States. Indeed, the future for many of today's college students -- and for graduates that financed their educations with high-interest loans -- is awash in red ink. To wit, the total student-load debt in the United States has now reached $1.2 trillion (Talev, et al., 2014). Between 2004 and 2012 the student loan debt almost tripled from $364 billion to $966 billion (Talev, 2014). President Barack Obama and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren have introduced legislation to ease the burden for students by, among other things, reducing the interest on the repayment of those loans. But the deep ideological divisions within the U.S. Congress make it nearly impossible for anything positive to get done to help students.
Meanwhile, this paper examines and critiques several issues -- beyond those mentioned above -- that are plaguing higher education through the first fourteen years of the new millennium. Relevant background narrative is referenced on how the universities and colleges got into the difficulties they now experience. Specifically, this paper references: a) the problems associated with the commercialization / corporatization of American institutions of higher learning -- including the drift from strictly academics to a kind of crass consumerism; and b) how the huge financial rewards resulting from big-time college athletics have degraded and embarrassed colleges and universities, have created fake coursework, and have allowed some students to graduate based not on what they have learned but how well they have performed on the football field or basketball court.
Thesis: Colleges and Universities are entering a critical phase in their evolution from providing a basic well-rounded education to today's more commercial and corporate-themed institutions. Either the tide will turn back to basics -- for a significant number of higher educational institutions -- or the trend toward creating commercially-trained consumers rather than educated students will ultimately corrupt universities to the point of being unrecognizable as institutions of higher learning.
Big Time Sports Influences in the College / University Milieu
Among the myriad programs offered by today's institutions of higher learning -- including many that present research-oriented curricula, have relevant social value, and help prepare students for the highly competitive labor market -- big, flashy, profitable (and sometimes corrupt) sports programs (notably football and basketball) stick out like a sore thumb. Indeed, college / university sports by 2014 has become a $16 billion-a-year industry (Barrett, 2014); but along with those billions of dollars there is a mixed bag of glory and pride on the one hand and shame and sanctions on the other. In fact, scandals caused by violations of rules established by the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) are commonplace, leading essayist William C. Dowling to assert that the commercialization of student athletes is a destructive force in American higher education (Dowling, 2001).
The author, an English professor at Rutgers University, bases his attacks on big college sports on a number of key topics, but his salient argument is that higher education has prostituted itself to commercialized sports (Dowling, 2001). He uses the word corruption frequently, and backs his positions with specific incidents involving, in particular, Division 1A programs -- typically involving football and basketball, the two biggest money-makers.
He mentions a scandal at the University of Minnesota during which a tutor for athletes had plagiarized over 400 pieces of work for about twenty basketball players over a five-year period. Apparently these basketball players were more focused on qualifying for March Madness (the NCCAA's annual high-profile tournament) than they were on learning or preparing for careers (Dowling, 2001).
The professor also notes that academic dishonesty isn't the only problem when it comes to bringing in talented athletes with underwhelming brain power and questionable ethical standards. At Virginia Tech in 1997, nineteen players (at one point) were under criminal indictment for offenses including rape, assault and burglary (Dowling, 2001). While Dowling does present valid arguments to bolster his view that corruption has become pervasive in big time college sports, he tends to pound away at the same theme and list the many universities that break rules, while not really offering an alternative to the corruption he rages against.
Two suggestions that he offers are not likely to be adopted any time soon by the University of Texas (which raked in $104.5 million from Division 1A sports in 2012, the top school in sports revenue), or Michigan ($85 million) or Alabama ($81.9 million) (Gaines, 2013). His first idea put forward proposes that universities actually pay college athletes competitive wages, and thus remove the false notion that they are actually students in college to learn. That one is pretty far afield, but his second proposal is perhaps even more obscure. He suggests that some of the funds from the multi-million dollar television deals universities receive for sports broadcasts could be used to send in-state students to universities that are out of state (Dowling, 2001). How would that work and why? He doesn't explain.
Current Scandal at the University of North Carolina
Meanwhile, thirteen years after Dowling's essay, revelations regarding the blatant corruption at the once-respected sports programs at the University of North Carolina (UNC) were brought out of the shadows by whistleblower Mary Willingham, a university staff member whose job was to tutor students and student athletes. What Willingham reported to the media makes some of Dowling's examples of wrongdoing pale in comparison.
For example, the UNC Department of African, African-American, and Diaspora Students reportedly offered over 200 lecture courses that were fake, and no student athlete that signed up for any of those 200 courses ever attended even a single lecture. That's because they were fraudulent, phantom classes designed to keep good athletes (mostly African-American athletes) at the top of their game, and their game wasn't academics, it was basketball or football (Barrett, 2014).
Some of the football players during the years Willingham worked at UNC lacked simple literacy skills, and had fourth-grade level comprehension skills she asserted; but those athletes had access to a hard drive with a substantial database of term papers. Many athletes reportedly just made a few minor adjustments to the term papers, printed them out and turned them in for credit. Willingham said it would be highly unlikely that the professors (in the classes where the athletes were required to turn in at least one 20-page paper) could not have noticed that the exact same papers were being submitted by athletes, over and over again (Barrett. 2014).
In time, once the university realized that Willingham was feeding information and data on UNC's corrupt practices to a local newspaper reporter, UNC demoted her, and eventually fired her. She sued UNC on July 1, 2014, claiming her firing was in response to making the UNC scandal public (Barrett. 2014).
The Long-Term Negative Impacts on Athletes
When corrupt university sports-related activities are made public, in the aftermath there a number of victims, including the student athletes, according to a research piece in the Journal of Sports Management. The three main consequences for student-athletes following a scandal are sanctions, a serious sense of loss, and future treatment that is negative and hurtful (Kihl, et al., 2008). Moreover, those immediate negative impacts are followed by embarrassment, mistrust, stress and anger, and separation by stakeholders (Kihl, 2008). After all, institutions of higher learning are normally associated with a sense of fair play, and when academic / athletic fraud is publicized, it actually has a distorting effect on the civic culture, Kihl explains.
For one thing, charitable giving (and alumni giving) is affected negatively, and it sometimes takes many years for an institution to recover from the shock of scandal. In addition, the NCAA sanctions that are levied against universities found guilty of fraud create a climate on campuses…