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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Joe Paterno, rich alumni, and imminent demise of college campuses

When I arrived at Northwestern in 1989 the President was a man named Arnie Weber.  He told me that his mother once asked him what he did as President. After he described his daily life to her she replied “ I didn’t raise my son to be a schnorrer.” (That word is Yiddish for “begger.”)
At a different moment he told me that the only real job of the President of a university was to provide ample parking for the faculty, nice dormitories for the students, and football for the alumni.
I am mentioning these things because I feel that a university-insider needs to put the Joe Paterno story in perspective. 
(For my non-US readers the short story on Joe Paterno is that he was a football coach at Penn State, regarded as a saint by nearly everyone, who turns out to have been protecting a pedophile on his staff from prosecution for years.)
We now are hearing about whether Penn State’s football program should be punished and we are hearing mea culpas from the Penn State Board of Trustees.
This is all nonsense of course. As usual the real problem is not being discussed.
Joe Paterno owned Penn State. The President of Penn State could not fire a man who was obviously too old to be a coach anymore and he could not fire him for protecting a pedophile. In fact he could not fire him for anything.
Now it may seem that this was an unusual situation. Not that many schools have football coaches who did as much to make an obscure university well known and whose influence and general goodness was agreed upon by all.
But in fact universities the size of Penn State always have a Joe Paterno. The man who runs the show may not be the football coach, but he is almost certainly not the President either.
The man or men who run big universities are the very wealthy alumni. Universities the size of Penn State need tremendous amounts of operating capital to support the sheer number of buildings and acreage not to mention sports arenas. As I mentioned in my most recent column, universities are money hungry and will overcharge students if they can get away with it because they need a lot of money in order to operate. Who supplies this money? 
Alumni donations are the number one issue on a college president’s mind. At Penn State it was Joe Paterno who supplied the money by winning football games and by getting massive numbers of people into State College, PA, six times a year to bolster the local economy.
Northwestern had a Joe Paterno when I was there. He wasn’t the football coach. He was just a local billionaire who got to decide whatever he wanted to decide at Northwestern. The basketball arena is named after him, the football field is named after him, and his not too bright relatives are on the board with him.
He decides what goes on at Northwestern because he can give large amounts of money to the university and he can push his friends to do so as well.
What I am describing is especially true at any private university which has no public money but it is true at state owned universities as well.
The President of the University of Michigan once mentioned to me that he was being forced to admit a student who couldn’t read because powerful alumni wanted him on the football team.
There are some obvious conclusions here. One is that college football is a bad thing. Now I say this as someone who happens to love college football. I even played college football. But really,if football issues drive out reason and fairness at a university (the players live like royalty in comparison to other students for example) perhaps it should be abolished.
People think that football produces revenue in terms of TV contracts and gate receipts and that is why it is there. The real revenue football produces is in the form of alumni donations which do indeed go up when the team wins.
It is alumni donations and the university's dependence upon them that is the real problem. Alumni at Penn State don’t know or care how good the Physics department is. Donations don’t go up when faculty win international recognition in research.
Universities are run by those who bring in money. At Northwestern, I brought in a lot of money for research. I got what I wanted when I wanted it. I understood how the system worked.
It is time to end this system. It is time to end the idea of the big college campus which is like a hungry animal that needs to be fed. 
Local colleges are about as important as local bookstores or local movie theaters these days. Their time is over.
Education, like anything else these days, can be done without physical locations.
Unfortunately, on line education is awful. The reason for that is simple. The physical model of education (large lectures halls and long lectures -- a money saving idea if ever there were one) still serves as the model for on line education. But it won’t for long.
Penn State is doomed, not because of Joe Paterno but because the physical campus and alumni network that controls Penn State cannot last in the world of the Internet.
Campuses will go away. Get used to it. 
It is our job to build on line education that is better than anything provided on campuses now. This can and should be done.

1 comment:

French Bulldog said...

Amen to this posting Roger!

With your background, do you think the technologies you've worked with and/or those potentially-additional technologies behind IBM's Watson and Apple's Siri, that some paradigm-shifting possibilities exist in the near future for higher education?

Along those lines, here are some recent possible new paradigms / items I put on my Learning Ecosystems blog:


P.S. I'm extremely disappointed to see where Northwestern has gone these last few decades. I went to school there in the 80's when Weber was there -- and it is a great school in so many ways. But I don't like where Bienen and donors took the University, and where Schapiro and donors seem to be continuing in similar directions (