“Power 5” Power Play Just Higher Ed Being What It Is

With few major football or basketball games played last week, the big college sports news was off the field. The five “power conferences” – the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, PAC 12, and SEC – signaled their intent to start paying stipends to athletes whether other NCAA schools liked it or not. It was a pure power move by the big football conferences, telling the rest of the NCAA that they must either let the big boys get an even-greater recruiting advantage, or the big guys might just leave.

The announcement was the kind of cutthroat, self-serving action you might expect from rapacious Gekko capitalists. Or from…major college football and basketball programs, which have long made collecting big bucks and trophies everything. But here’s the thing: College sports is only the most visible manifestation of the self-interest driving higher education. All Ivory Tower denizens, whether coaches gathering huge salaries, or professors paid to read and write about obscure subjects they find fascinating, are looking out for Number 1.

What distinguishes the rest of the Ivory Tower from its fields and wooden courts isn’t motivation, but demand. Journal article #21,001 on Shakespeare isn’t likely to generate even a nano-fraction of the interest another touchdown in Ohio State-Michigan will. Major football and basketball programs openly compete for money because there are lots of people who get big benefits – entertainment, pride – from college sports and are willing to pay for the product.

Not so for the rest of the Ivory Tower, so it plays politics. It sells itself as driven by the “common good” to obtain a lot of money through government that it almost certainly couldn’t get voluntarily from others.

Of course, the public may someday benefit from the newest insight into the Bard, or myriad other academic efforts, and no doubt many in academia believe that’s a valuable thing. But make no mistake: the certain, tangible rewards almost all accrue to the researcher, who often gets a good salary and benefits – including, sometimes, guaranteed lifetime employment – to indulge in a subject he loves. The professor serves himself, just like the football coach, big businessman, or anyone else who does something because it makes him feel better than if he didn’t do it. In other words, his basic motivation is the same as everyone else’s, but unlike the coach or businessman, many of the people paying for the professor get nothing in return.  

All of higher education, not just big-time football and basketball, is driven by self-interest. It’s just most of the Ivory Tower can’t afford to admit it.

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Posted by: Neal McCluskey

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