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The potentially existential problem at the University of Texas February 10, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Politics.
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UTcampus1On the surface, it seems there has never been a better time to be a part of a major university, particularly the state-funded type.  Education remains in high demand, after all, and those working as full-time academics (extra emphasis on “full-time”) make good money.  Individual states take pride in their flagship schools as being centers for world-class research, that some of the most cutting-edge, world-changing advances in technology, from electronics to engineering to chemistry to medicine, have come out of these sorts of universities.  Note that I said “some” research, for just as many cutting-edge discoveries have come out of R&D departments in General Electric, General Motors, DuPont, 3M, Magnum Research, Lockheed-Martin, and the like (note that they are all for-profit companies in the private sector!).

But that stipulation aside, these flagship schools are often viewed with some degree of prestige.  Pennsylvania, for example, rightly takes pride in the academic excellence at Penn State, as it is regarded as a “public Ivy.”  Ditto for the University of Michigan in the Great Lakes State, or for both Indiana and Purdue Universities in the neighboring Hoosier State.  The Universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota are also known for quality, world-class research and are thus a source of pride for their respective states.  Same can be said for Cal-Berkeley and UCLA in the once-Golden State or for the University of Washington in the Evergreen State.  Even the SEC, not necessarily known for its academic prowess overall compared to the Big Ten or even the Pac-12, nevertheless has a good example of a big, state flagship school with good academics (though a recent development, to be sure) in the University of Florida.  And yes, the adjective “state” also means “public,” with college tuition being more affordable for in-state students than if said students were to attend private schools for their higher education instead.

So what is the problem?  Well, the issue has two large, important dimensions.  At the heart of said issue is an existential crisis that seems to be gripping the University of Texas, another great example of a state flagship school that has good academics both at the undergrad level as well as the graduate one.  This existential, if not outright identity, crisis is the result of something of a culture clash within the vaunted institution.  USA Today reports that opposing factions within the school have very different visions for the direction and purpose of the UT.  The conflict basically goes this way:  do we focus on the prestigious aspects of the school, or do we make it more accessible?  It’s basically a Cadillac vs. Chevy argument.  Cadillacs are much nicer and classier, but Chevys will still get you where you need to go without breaking the bank in the process.  Both arguments have merit, but which way should the university go?

The prestige/class argument certainly has its place, but has severe limitations.  Undergrads usually choose their school based on its academic reputation, yet said reputation comes from research done by faculty and doctoral students.  Just because a professor is a leading researcher in his field does not necessarily mean he will be effectively imparting that insight to the undergrads.  In fact, in all likelihood, he might farm out that teaching to his teacher’s assistants, themselves concentrating on establishing their own reputations in academia.  The only way an undergraduate student would have a course taught be one of these hypothetical leading professors is if they take an arcane course that is directly within the narrow scope of the professor’s arcane research, as Dr. Thomas Sowell points out.  Such is often the case at Harvard and the other Ivy League schools, but less so at certain places like Purdue.

This leads us even further into the problem with “prestige.”  While some research is very useful in the real world, other research, not so much.  If the cutting-edge research is within the fields of engineering, medicine, food science, agriculture, chemistry, computers/electronics, or even business management to an extent, then all those things can translate to useful applications to advance our standard of living in the real world.  But if a professor is a leading researcher in sociology, communication, “women’s studies,” or “critical theory” (i.e., Marxism), so what?  How does a degree in a field of that sort of related study translate into marketable skills, which, now more than ever, are key to getting a job in a tough economy?

Long gone are the days when just having any old degree will get you a decent-paying job.  Employers look for specific skills to make specific contributions to their companies’ productivity.  Therefore, if major universities wish to remain relevant, the other argument goes, then they must adapt their teaching curricula to meet these more basic student needs so that said students, once they graduate, can be productive elements of society, and thus truly get their money’s worth.

Specifically, employers are looking for – depending on your industry, and yes, I’m generalizing here – nurses, engineers, chemists (to an extent), I.T. professionals/computer engineers/programmers, and accountants, not to mention HVAC technicians, plumbers, the latter two do not even require a four-year degree insomuch as a vocational certification.  Getting a degree in sociology will not help fulfill employers’ needs.

I for one lean towards the latter camp, but coming from an academically-oriented family myself, I fully sympathize with the other side’s point of view.  Where I part company with the other side is the blind eye they turn to, if not outright abet, all the side-effects that come with the purely theoretical, no-real-world-application side of academia.  To put it bluntly, one does not hear a peep of Marxism, or any other permutation of Leftist philosophy from engineering or medical schools.  Perhaps many a chemistry professor might vote for all the local, state and national Democrat lefties du jour, but one hardly hears any of their ideology trickle down into the classroom.  Ditto for engineering professors, or even math professors, though one is likely to find some conservatives in those camps and others where part of their profession is making sure that the numbers actually, you know, add up.

That can hardly be said for many courses in communications, English, sociology, “critical theory/studies,” any ethnic study one cares to choose, or even many – though thankfully not all – history courses and pretty else everywhere else within the purview of liberal arts, sadly.

The irony in the existential debate surrounding the University of Texas is that it has the resources to do a mix of both.  It has the resources to offer trade-oriented education to the majority of its would-be undergrads, while at the same time offer English, History, Foreign Languages, Math and Science courses to the kids who want to teach in those disciplines at the secondary (i.e., high school level).  If kids within the latter category want to continue their studies as actual scholars in those fields, UT ought to have the resources to accommodate that to an extent, as well as continue in the world class research in which the former camp takes so much pride.

A potential problem with this approach is that, yes, it can muddle the brand, and would run the risk trying to make the University of Texas all things to all people, which hardly anybody outside of G.E. and Carrier/United Technologies are capable of doing. Muddying the brand is problematic enough.  Packard tried that in the 1930s in order to survive the Great Depression.  Rival Cadillac already had the luxury of having the low-priced Chevrolet brand within the larger General Motors conglomerate.  As an independent, though, Packard reasoned that it needed to make low-priced models just to survive, but in doing so, it compromised the prestige of the brand.  As any marketing professor worth his or her salt will tell you, though, the solution would have been for Packard to come with its own low-priced flanker brand so as to not compromise the brand equity of its famous luxury marque.

Sounds simple in theory, but for higher education, it is not.  If UT were to adopt this idea, how could the ‘man on the street’ differentiate the practical vocation-oriented training from the prestigious research that is normally associated with such an institution?  Ultimately, it should come down to individual employers’ ability to be able to see how employment candidates from that school can translate the practical knowledge they have learned into applied abilities to benefit the companies, without regard to prestigious research done elsewhere at such a huge school.

This brief exploration of the opposing issues by no means will settle this huge argument in Austin.  But approaching market forces might compel the university to adapt some version of this proposed hybrid model, prestige or no prestige.  This discussion is surely to be continued.

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College Football Week 12 Awards November 18, 2012

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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(Note:  All rankings are current AP [post-week 12, pre-week 13] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES
Wish I were him:  Art Briles, Baylor
Glad I’m not him: Bill Snyder, Kansas State
Lucky guy: David Shaw, Stanford
Poor guy: Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Desperately seeking a clue:  Jeff Tedford, California
Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Dabo Swinney, Clemson

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Tommy Tuberville, Texas Tech
Desperately seeking … anything:  Derek Dooley, Tennessee

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Alabama (beat Western Carolina 49-0)
Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Kansas State (see below)
Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: Wake Forest (lost to Notre Dame 38-0)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Wofford (lost to No. 13 South Carolina 24-7)
Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Baylor (see below)

Thought you wouldn’t get your butt kicked, you did: Army (see below)

Dang, they’re good: Georgia
Dang, they’re bad:  UAB

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Kansas State (see below)

Did the season start? Michigan State
Can the season end?  Tennessee
Can the season never end?  LSU

GAMES
Play this again:  No. 8 LSU 41, Ole Miss 35
Never play this again: Temple 63, Army 32
What? Utah State 48, No. 20* Louisiana Tech 41, OT

Huh?  No. 23* Oklahoma State 59, No. 24* Texas Tech 21

Are you kidding me? No. 13* Stanford 17, No. 2* Oregon 14, OT

Oh – my – God:  Baylor 52, No. 1* Kansas State 24

* Week 12 AP rankings

NEXT WEEK
Ticket to die for:  No. 6 Florida @ No. 10 Florida State (notwithstanding No. 13 South Carolina @ No. 12 Clemson)
Best non-Big Six vs. Big Six matchup: (none)
Best non-Big Six matchup: Ohio U @ Kent State
Upset alert: Baylor over Texas Tech in Waco

Must win: No. 1 Notre Dame @ USC
Offensive explosion: No. 24 Oklahoma State @ No. 12 Oklahoma
Defensive struggle: No. 20 Michigan @ No. 4 Ohio State
Great game no one is talking about: No. 5 Oregon @ No. 16 Oregon State

Thanksgiving Day Special:  TCU @ No. 18 Texas

Cloud Nine Bowl:  No. 8 Stanford @ No. 17 UCLA

Intriguing coaching matchup:  Mike Riley of Oregon State vs. Chip Kelly of Oregon
Who’s bringing the body bags? Georgia Tech @ No. 3 Georgia (notwithstanding Northern Illinois @ Eastern Michigan, Friday)
Why are they playing? BYU @ New Mexico State

Plenty of good seats remaining: UNLV @ Hawaii

Plenty of good seats remaining, SEC East edition:  Kentucky @ Tennessee
They shoot horses, don’t they?  Akron @ Toledo (Tuesday night)

Instant BCS Chaos:  In just one night, the BCS standings have turned upside down.  All Kansas State and Oregon had to do was win out, and they would have been matched up in a very intriguing national championship game in Miami.  Scratch that; ain’t gonna happen.  Oregon lost a close, hard-fought game in Eugene, Ore., to a tough Stanford squad.  The game went into OT, and the Duck’s failure to score on their opening possession gave the Cardinal an opportunity to win the game with a field goal, which they did.  Another one bites the dust.

Yet half-way across the country in the heart of Texas (Waco, to be exact), something even more improbable developed.  Kansas State, at that time ranked No. 1 in the land, went down to spectacular defeat at the hands of Art Briles’ Baylor [Baptist] Bears.  The score itself was improbable:  when is the last time any top-ranked team went down to an un-ranked team by a score of 52-24?  Nothing accounts for that.  Credit Briles and Co. with coming up with an amazing game plan that effectively attacked the Wildcats where it hurt them the most, and they never let up the entire night.

Not in five years has there been such BCS standings chaos in one night of regular season football.  Yet things get even more intriguing from this point onward.  For the first time in 19 years, almost to the week, Notre Dame is the No. 1 team in the nation.  No doubt plenty of rejoicing erupted in South Bend., Ind., instantly upon Kansas State’s defeat, and no doubt the merriment doubled again in light of Oregon going down at home in OT.  After winning close game after close game, Brian Kelly has brought the Fighting Irish back to national prominence and is in the driver’s seat to punch their ticket to Miami come early January.  Meanwhile, an entire nation will scrutinize Notre Dame to see if they themselves can stand prosperity as they journey to Los Angeles this upcoming weekend to take on traditional rival USC.

And just like that, the SEC is back in the national discussion:  Alabama’s upset at home to Texas A&M last week seemed to wipe out the Crimson Tide’s hopes of repeating as national title contenders.  With last night’s, er, developments, despair has instantly transformed into renewed hope and ambition.  Bama is now second in both the AP and USA Today Polls, and Georgia is no. 3.  Should both those teams win out – extra emphasis on ‘should’ – it will be a very interesting contest in Atlanta for the SEC championship come Dec. 1.

Dooley Fired:  Not only is now-former Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley “Desperately seeking…anything.”  Now he’ll be desperately seeking…a job.  The University of Tennessee decided to cut its ties with Dooley after their embarrassing loss in Nashville to up-and-coming, in-state rival Vanderbilt, 41-18.  The firing is effective immediately, as it has been reported on Tennessee’s athletics website that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney (with whom I worked while a student manager at Purdue, as he was an assistant under Coach Joe Tiller) will be the interim head coach for the upcoming game against Kentucky.  Evidently, the powers that be are not giving Dooley a couple of curtain calls like those UK’s Joker Phillips has received.

Yesterday’s embarrassing loss to the Commodores was just the last straw in one bad development after another for the program; the final blow to prove to the Volunteer nation that things need to be guided in a newer, better direction. This year alone, the Vols have gone 4-7, and 0-7 in the SEC, something entirely unacceptable to a large, proud fan base, to say nothing of a program with such massive tradition and resources behind it.  In just one game shy of three complete seasons, Dooley is just 15-21 with Tennessee, but worse yet, 4-19 in the SEC, and 0-15 against top-25 opponents.  Let us not forget that his hiring was essentially a stop-gap move in the wake of Lane Kiffin’s sudden departure for the USC job.  Let us also not forget that under Dooley’s leadership last year, Tennessee lost their annual season-closer to Kentucky for the first time since 1984, and it is not a given that the Vols will Triumph over the Wildcats this year, either.  Come to think of it, has Kentucky ever defeated Tennessee in football for two seasons in a row?

Paging Bobby Petrino…

Heisman talk:  Quarterback Collin Klein of K-State was the Heisman frontrunner, but after his team lost ignominiously, and his performance was mediocre at best (27 for 50, 286 yards, 2 td’s but 3 int’s), could it be that “Johnny Football,” Johnny Manziel, himself of Texas A&M, is the new award frontrunner?  Food for thought, in any case.

College Football Week 11 Awards November 12, 2012

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(Note:  All rankings are current AP [post-week 11, pre-week 12] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES
Wish I were him:  Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Glad I’m not him:  Nick Saban, Alabama
Lucky guy: James Franklin, Vanderbilt
Poor guy: Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Desperately seeking a clue: Tommy Tuberville, Texas Tech

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Rocky Long, San Diego State

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Charlie Strong, Louisville
Desperately seeking … anything:  Mike Leach, Washington State

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: No. 4 Georgia (beat Auburn 38-0)
Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: No. 3 Notre Dame (beat Boston College 21-6)
Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did:  Indiana (lost to Wisconsin 62-14)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Louisiana-Lafayette (lost to No. 7 Florida 27-20)
Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Tulsa (beat Houston 41-7)

Dang, they’re good: Oregon
Dang, they’re bad:  Southern Miss

Ya’ know, they’re not so bad:  Virginia

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Louisville (see below), notwithstanding Alabama (see below)

Did the season start?  Utah
Can the season end?  Iowa
Can the season never end?  Texas A&M

GAMES
Play this again:  No. 9** Texas A&M 29, No. 4**  Alabama 24
Never play this again: Wisconsin 62, Indiana 14

What? No. 6 Florida 27, Louisiana-Lafayette 20
Huh? Missouri 51, Tennessee 48, 4OT

Are you kidding me? Syracuse 45, No. 9* Louisville 26

Oh – my – God:  No. 15* Texas A&M 29, No. 1* Alabama 24
Told you so: Syracuse 45, No. 9* Louisville 26

* rankings are AP, Week 11

** reflects current, Week 12 AP rankings

NEXT WEEK
Ticket to die for: No. 14 Stanford @ No. 3 Oregon
Best non-Big Six vs. Big Six matchup: Samford @ Kentucky
Best non-Big Six matchup: Utah State @ No. 20 Louisiana Tech

Upset alert: N.C. State @ No. 13 Clemson

Must win: No. 12 Oklahoma @ West Virginia
Offensive explosion: No. 19 USC @ No. 18 UCLA
Defensive struggle: Tennessee @ Vanderbilt
Great game no one is talking about: No. 23 Rutgers @ Cincinnati

Intriguing coaching matchup: Jim Mora Jr. of UCLA vs. Lane Kiffin of USC
Who’s bringing the body bags? Western Carolina @ No. 4 Alabama
Why are they playing? Jacksonville State @ No. 7 Florida

Plenty of good seats remaining: UTEP @ Southern Miss (notwithstanding Buffalo @ UMass)
They shoot horses, don’t they?  Wofford @ No. 8 South Carolina

Week 11:  Another Two Bite the Dust

Two more undefeateds went down this week, one semi-expected, one hardly expected.  Louisville’s first defeat of the season was semi-expected, and for a number of reasons.  For one, most of Louisville’s wins were hardly overwhelming.  Moreover, their defense seemed to be increasingly under-performing during most of the season.  Their average margin of victory has been only 12.8 points, including an early-season blowout over Missouri State (35-7) and last week’s blowout over Temple (45-17).  Add Syracuse’s unpredictable competitiveness at home to the mix (it was their Senior Day, after all), and in the back of my mind, something was about to give.

But all is not lost for the Cardinals.  They are still in the running to win the Big East, and if they are able to defeat Rutgers in Piscataway on Nov. 29, they can clinch the conference total, though it nevertheless remains a relatively tall order.

The same cannot be said for as-of-yesterday No. 1 Alabama going down to surprising, almost shocking defeat (almost!) at home to No. 15 – and climbing! – Texas A&M.  The game already had a special feel to it regardless of the rankings, given that this was the first time the Crimson Tide was to play the Aggies since the 1968 Cotton Bowl.  Even Aggie and Crimson Tide legends showed up for Week 11’s aptly-labeled “ticket to die for”, including John David Crow (the only Bear Bryant-coached Heisman Trophy winner [1957, from A&M]), and Gene Stallings, both of whom were part of Bryant’s 1954 “Junction Boys” at A&M, the latter of whom coached against Bryant in the Cotton Bowl in ’68 (Bryant for Bama, Stallings for A&M), and who later coached Alabama to its last national championship (1992-’93), before Nick Saban’s tenure.

To observe the special meeting between the two teams, they even mimicked the uniform contrast of the opposing sides from roughly 44 years ago.  In the 1968 Cotton Bowl match-up, Alabama showed up in all-white (helmets included) to contrast against A&M’s maroon helmets and jerseys.  This time it was A&M who showed up in all-white (helmets included) to contrast Bama’s traditional crimson helmets and jerseys.

At right shows Alabama vs. Texas A&M in the 1968 Cotton Bowl. The Crimson Tide showed up in all-white to contrast the Aggies’ traditional maroon uniforms. In a nod to that game from over 44 years ago, this time it was the Aggies that showed in all-white yesterday (left) to contrast Bama’s traditional crimson unis. Look carefully, and notice how little the stripes on the teams’ pants have changed in four and a half decades!

The game itself, oddly enough, made things even more memorable.  Before yesterday’s game commenced, Alabama’s defense only allowed an average of six points in the first quarter.  In the first 15 minutes of this game, they allowed three touchdowns.  Such lying down on the job is what made the game more interesting than necessary, and ended up costing Alabama the game, the top-ranking, and likely a shot at the national championship.  One can quibble over whether a lapse of discipline on the part of a defensive player with 40 seconds left in the game cost Alabama just that with an offside penalty, thus giving the Aggies an automatic first down.  But such a penalty would have been moot had Bama’s defense played up to its usual standards in the first half. Credit Kevin Sumlin for putting together a game plan that took the fight to the Tide in their home stadium.

The new championship race:  Some have speculated that Bama’s unexpected loss has, if you’ll pardon the expression, parted the Red Sea in two for Notre Dame to walk into national title discussion.  I might borrow Lee Corso’s famous line of “not so fast my friend” and remind such speculators that both Oregon and Kansas State are ahead of Notre Dame in the rankings, both the AP kind and the BCS kind.  The latter standings are a result of superior strength of schedule on the part of both the Ducks and the Wildcats.  It shall take a loss of one of those teams – not likely, but not impossible – for Notre Dame to be legitimate contenders.  The same will have to be the case for Alabama to work its way back into such discussions, now that they are behind Georgia in the USA Today Poll (@ No.5), though ahead of them in the AP Poll (@ No. 4).  Not an egregious fall, but one that might be just insurmountable enough without a little outside help.  Can we say “Alabama-Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl” if these shadows remain unchanged?  If nothing else, it would be another legendary match-up!

Quick uniform note:  TCU once had one of the nicest-looking helmets in college football.  That is, until they temporarily compromised the look by succumbing to the flat, matte helmet epidemic that seems to have gripped a number of teams.  Thankfully, the team has chosen to grant themselves a respite from that visual impairment disease, at least temporarily.  Last night in their valiant loss to Kansas State, the Horned Frogs sported helmets that closely recalled their traditional beautiful purple shells.  Their helmets on TV seemed shinier than ever before; perhaps a special polish was put on the metallic purple, or, even better, they went for a chrome purple look.  Whichever it was, here’s hoping they go forward with keeping this current helmet look and throw the matte shells onto the ash heap of regrettable trends.