On Riffraff

Dear Coach Creighton,

I don’t think we’ve met, not in person. I sent you a welcome to EMU email a few years ago when you accepted the position of head football coach, noting that I remembered you from your time in the early 2000s at Ottawa University (Kansas) because I was in Kansas City, working as NAIA Region V information officer, among other things.

I’m faculty at EMU now, where I’ve worked since 2009 and where I am beginning my fourth year as Director of the First-year Writing Program. It’s a large program, one of the largest cohesive academic programs insofar as we are responsible for curriculum and staffing of over 150 sections of WRTG120 and WRTG121 per year, sections that reach approximately 3,000 EMU students each year.

Early this morning I read about your media day press conference. Here’s the article: Eastern Michigan football survives rumors, with plans for progress. And then I went on a run, just a few miles around the neighborhood where I live three miles from campus. It was a great morning for a run; there is much to love about living in this area and about working at EMU.

As I ran, though, I was nagged by something you said on media day, something that was quoted in the Free Press article. For context, here’s the longer section where it appeared:

Athletic director Heather Lyke has broached the situation with open arms, fielding questions from concerned students and alumni, as has former interim President Donald Loppnow, current President James Smith and the Regents.

But Creighton said support from alumni and former players has been even better.

“It’s been the response to the riffraff in April from alumni that has been awesome,” he said. “People love this school and people love this football program.

“Guys put four, five years into playing college football. There’s life changing values, lessons, teammates, discipline, commitment, teamwork, overcoming adversity — it changes you.”

When you referred to “riffraff,” it comes as a poke, a finger in the chest of people like me, my colleagues, the students we work with. I want you to know I read it as such: a jab, an unkind instigation. When you say “riffraff,” it seems like you are referring to people who participated in campus dialogue in April about EMU’s subsidizing athletics at the university with 26 million dollars annually from the General Fund. In those dialogues, students expressed surprise at more than 10% of their tuition dollars underwriting athletics. And many faculty voiced concerns about that level of spending–what appears to many to be an unchecked and unquestioned rate of expenditure, calling questions of whether it is ethical, much less sustainable at a modest regional, public university like ours. Twenty-six million dollars a year is $500,000 per week. Not many universities–even the wealthiest–can afford to spend that kind of money for long.

Riffraff names “undesirable” people. It is a pejorative term, akin to name calling. Are we really riffraff for speaking openly and freely about what concerns us at the university? Maybe you would be willing to say more about who you are referring to? I hesitate–with great concern–to think you are talking about others whose work at EMU directly relates to teaching and to supporting student academically, or to the students themselves.

I’ll spare you idealistic platitudes about how open dialogue is vital to our institutional mission, or about the importance of noticing when some units at the university, such as yours, are supported by resources that far and away exceed units like the one I am responsible for. For perspective, consider this. The tuition dollars from the First-year Writing Program generate approximately 2.7 million USD per year for the General Fund. With last year’s 7.8% tuition hike, credit hours in this program alone brought an additional $260,000 to the university. We had a budget of approximately $15,200, which underwrites things like pizza lunches, the biannual Celebration of Student Writing, and $50 stipends for all in the program who attend a full-day professional development workshop in mid-August, our only such event of the year. We underspent that $15,200 by more than 25%, which is to say with a modest measure of pride that we are a frugal program and that we have been resourceful. Our new graduate assistants–there are thirteen this fall who will be teaching WRTG120, which some of your football student-athletes very well may be enrolled in–spend two weeks on campus in August without any compensation for their time besides parking vouchers and lunches for one week donated by a textbook publisher. And even though every section is full this fall, even though our program is nationally recognized as thoughtfully designed and even innovative, we just learned that we may be facing a 54% budget cut for the year ahead due to flawed budgetary projects. Granted, the current budget situation affects all of EMU (doesn’t it? I’m not sure whether you are hearing about 54% budget cuts in your program this year). And it points to only a tiny sliver of all we might say about how the expenditures and investments disfavor academic units, generally.

This message has already gone on too long, and although there are myriad other examples, illustrations, and anecdotes to point out, about our part-time lecturers not being paid until after a full month of classes, about how poorly paid are our graduate assistants who are entrusted with full responsibility for teaching classes, about aging technology infrastructure and declining support for the maintenance and refresh of the one laptop cart shared by our entire program–what I set out to convey to you, above all, amounts to two points.

First, I hope you’ll reconsider your characterization of those who are bold enough to call the question of EMU’s athletic spending as “riffraff.” Your program is the beneficiary of considerable institutional support, and as such, a degree of modesty and self-awareness would go a long way to improving goodwill. As a former student-athlete myself and as someone who worked in athletics administration at another university for seven years, I tend to be in support of athletics and all that it can offer. But this is incredibly difficult to do at EMU when what we see is a kind of spending-be-damned hubris. Whatever else can be said about the strengths and limitations of the programs we are responsible for, if we are colleagues, and if our respective goals are commensurable, then we need to do better than to name-call.

Second, it is incredibly, incredibly difficult to keep morale high in an environment like we have in EMU, where the two-tiered haves and have-nots are sitting side by side in a classroom. This dynamic reaches well beyond campus, as well, into community spaces, as well, where character and integrity circulate, not always favorably though oftentimes warranting notice and even raising questions. After one of my daughter’s soccer matches early this summer, I sat down with my dad and her at The Bomber for lunch. A group of football student-athletes, coaching staff, and eventually you along with your son, came in, sat down within earshot. Just before you arrived, some of the discussion loudly enough expressed for us to overhear was about drinking the night before, about how great it would be if The Bomber would serve up a pitcher of bloody marys. My daughter, who is now ten, gave me a hard look and asked what those were, why someone would want them with Saturday brunch. You see, there is consequence to the ways we conduct ourselves on campus and away from it, particularly when attired in (institutionally underwritten) green and white, when acting as agents of the university, when forgetting even for a moment that we are implicated in something bigger.

Just as you will, I will continue to do my work–to go to campus and be a professional, to boost morale, encourage and support top-shelf instruction in an aspirational if modest academic program, and to ask questions, sometimes hard questions, of the university I work for. I’ll urge everyone at EMU to do the same. And I am idealistic enough to think the university will be better for it. But I’m also idealistic enough to think we’ll all do better to undertake this if we are not, when we encounter dissent, willing to jab at those whose views differ from our own.


Derek Mueller


08.21.2016 (7:52 p.m.) Moments after I posted this, I caught one minor typo and made the change right away. I also reworded the description of the experience at The Bomber so as to be clearer that I was there with my dad and daughter. This is significant because I was direct witness to the remarks; they are not second-hand.

I received a note from an EMU administrator on Sunday calling attention to two factual errors. The first is that part-time lecturers this fall will be paid on September 15. My description of that problem was based on the way things were handled last fall, when part-time lecturers were not paid until after the first full month of classes. I am encouraged to know that this has been addressed and improved.

And finally, the budget cut I noted applies to one department’s SSM operating budget. What does this mean? For starters it means that budgets are being cut unevenly across the institution right now. This entry does not in any way mean to establish that a campus-wide or uniform budget cut of 54% is a certainty. -DM


  1. If you listen to the press conference, and noting the specific “April” time reference in the newspaper piece, it’s apparent that Coach Creighton is loosely using the term “riffraff” to refer to the question, which arose in the media and thus among readers last April, of whether EMU would drop football, which naturally poses problems in recruiting. He IS NOT referring to EMU students, faculty or staff as riffraff, but rather to that situation last spring, which prompted a clarifying public statement from the University that it has no plans to drop football nor leave the Mid American Conference. It’s also natural to assume the reporter writing the piece would have followed up on such a pejorative characterization with a clarification himself (As in, what do you mean by “riffraff,” coach?), which he apparently did not.

    1. I didn’t study the transcript of the press conference, though I’m sure the analysis you’re sharing here is worthy of noting among the perspectives circulating elsewhere on social media. The remark as contextualized in the Free Press article read as an instigation, a flippancy. I don’t have any interest in over-assigning it meaning, but it does hearken to a general disregard for the basis from which discussions of football’s status have been emerging for years. There’s far more to the stasis around football than the binary of “cancel the program” or “pursue national grandeur at any expense.” But you’ll recall that there hasn’t been especially much nuance in the exploration of more fiscally responsible alternatives to the current model–few if any, that is, sponsored by the university as open, inclusive, and bold in either leadership or vision.

  2. Derek, I much appreciate this very thoughtful, reasoned, and factual response to the “riffraff” name-calling incident. You have calmly replied with dignity, upholding the educational values that EMU students value and for which they pick Eastern.

    Thanks again!

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