Ouch.

This is a line from a letter written to the president of Harvard from an alumnus, a pissed off rich guy. The letter is quoted in the Crimson.

The guy is an Ivy League T. Boone Pickens. An east coast Phil Knight wannabe. He’s in a rage because he’s just seen his investment in the school’s basketball team get shot to hell because of a cheating scandal.

You can understand his anger. A titan of industry takes over a sports team, he expects it to win. T. Boone’s luxury box tantrums when Oklahoma State football fucks up are the stuff of legend.

But wait a minute. This is Harvard University the guy’s talking about. When he says like many the Faculty of Arts and Sciences assigns he’s not talking about some jock shop. He’s talking about Harvard University!

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So. Let us put this matter into perspective. Let us look at the problems that conspired to produce the cheating scandal that broke up the basketball team this guy was bankrolling. Let us then consider solutions.

1. Yes, Harvard’s notorious for short-changing undergraduates. This isn’t going to change. Catering to professors who only want to teach graduate students is a Harvard thing. If you want to teach at a first-rate school that takes undergraduate and graduate instruction equally seriously, leave Harvard and go to Princeton.

Harvard’s relative indifference to its undergraduate component will inevitably produce some stupidly designed courses like this one, with its absurd take-home exam (take-home exams are invitations to cheat), inexperienced instructor, etc.

2. Bogus, easy-A, jock courses are the name of the game at big sports universities (for details, see recent events at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill), and no one cares, since winning is more important than educating the people recruited to play on the teams. Harvard is supposed to have a different ethos, but as long as it’s got a sports program that rich guys like the letter writer blow lots of money on, it’s going to have courses like this on offer.

3. Et ainsi, the letter writer can’t have it both ways. Either you put your money on a truly competitive team some of whose players are – inevitably – not scholars, or you settle for a reasonably but not dramatically competitive team made up of scholars. If the guy had put his money on a legitimately scholarly team, he’d be writing pissed off letters to Drew Faust about what losers they are, how she has to take recruiting more seriously, etc. He put his money on a not legitimately scholarly team, and now he’s pissed off because they’re not legitimately scholarly.

Solutions:

There’s only one solution.

1. Harvard should do what Oregon and Oklahoma State have done, and give the team to the titan. Phil Knight and T. Boone run basketball and football at Oregon and Oklahoma State. They basically own the teams. They bought them. Make Thomas Sternberg pony up Knight/T. Boone levels of support and give him the damn basketball team.

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5 Responses to ““We had a professor who, like many the Faculty of Arts and Sciences assigns to teach undergraduates, was clearly not qualified to do so.””

  1. Bill Gleason Says:

    Funny.

    On multiple levels.

  2. JND Says:

    A good reason to be at a relatively unknown DIII school in the hinterlands. Here, student athletes are very nearly — student athletes.

  3. Polish Peter Says:

    Actually, Princeton doesn’t accept transfer students, so while the spirit of UD’s advice is good, it’s not possible in practice to leave Harvard to go to Princeton.

    The Polish Peter family are long-time fans of Ivy League basketball, and UD’s analysis is quite accurate. Harvard is trying to have it both ways, and boosters like this guy feel empowered to complain loudly when it doesn’t work.

    Harvard has long had gut courses like the one discussed here, often taught with greater panache and more competently organized, such as the famous “Boats” courses on the age of colonization taught by “Commodore” John Parry.

  4. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    @Peter: I think UD was making that recommendation to faculty (“if you want to *teach* at a first-rate school. . .”). That can be done (see Cornel West, who made the trip in both directions).

    As far as solutions go, I’d vote for 2. refuse Mr. Sternberg’s money from now on. If he wanted to be an alum of a school with decent sports teams, he should have gone somewhere other than Harvard.

    But he’s right about the course being poorly-structured, perhaps inexcusably so. But no one ever got tenure at Harvard for teaching (and plenty of people who put lots of time and effort into teaching Harvard undergrads well don’t get tenure. Of course, plenty of those who half-ass their teaching don’t get tenure either. Anyone who takes an assistant professorship at Harvard expecting it to be something other than a relatively long, extremely prestigious postdoc is deluding him/herself. The road to tenure at Harvard is to distinguish oneself somewhere else. Yes, the reward system there is really screwed up. But who cares what effect it has on the basketball team? Maybe on individual team members who have already been exploited by being admitted to a school that wasn’t anywhere near the best academic fit for them, but not the team as an entity.)

  5. Polish Peter Says:

    @Cassandra: Sorry, I read UD’s post too fast. Indeed, faculty can make the trip from Harvard to Princeton, as Cornel West demonstrates. And you’re right about there being little in the reward structure at Harvard for junior faculty to teach undergraduates in anything but the most expedient way possible.

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