EMU and Real Sports

We’re in an interesting, important moment at EMU these days due to greater and greater concern about the institution’s budgetary condition and the sieve units on campus most prone to runaway spending. Ever since an HBO Real Sports segment, “Arms Race,” aired just over a week ago, the volume of these issues has climbed. In local and regional media, we’re catching various castings almost every day, many of them quoting regents, administrators, students, and Howard Bunsis, Professor of Accounting and faculty union leader, who has been among the most vocal proponents of more transparent and responsible spending. The most pointed details circulating are that over the past two years, athletics has operated on deficit (or General Fund dependency) of $52 million. Here’s a screen shot posted to Instagram from the report delivered to the Board of Regents that details how that deficit implicates all EMU students in patterned spending that obligates many of them to long-term payback via student loans. Each student who completes a four-year degree at EMU, the report says, contributes approximately $3600 to athletics, whether or not they attend a single event.

With this in mind, I wanted to note a couple of impressions:

  • It’s difficult, a heavy chore to call for less of anything, to call for less spending on athletics or on any university venture that involves people we work alongside, because there is always a risk of it seeming a personal attack. I mention this as a former student-athlete, myself, and also as someone who worked in higher ed athletics administration for seven years. These discussions of change, particularly dollar-wise change, are fraught, intensely emotional on all sides of the issues, and therefore incredibly difficult to reduce to clear causes much less clear solutions.
  • There are lingering narratives about underdogs (EMU is down but not out), about almosts (what if this is our breakthrough year?!), about unification (we’re all in this together), and about proportion (athletics is but a small sliver of the institution’s overall spending). These circulate as commonplaces, or readymade arguments that expedite, skipping over the nuance and subtlety, side-stepping the stickier work of correcting the problems. And as such, these are the sorts of snippets that tend to circulate in the news accounts because they are reportorially convenient.
  • It is always to admit failure, particularly for those in the mix (e.g., an AD or particularly supportive regents) who themselves have sports backgrounds because the allure of sports is in part its continuous progress trope: always improving, always getting better, no obstacle too grand, etc. But this thinking is especially dangerous if it manifests as an expensive hubris or megalomania, an inflexible insistence on staying the course when there is abundant and costly evidence that it is not going well. Could EMU make a change and therefore save money? Sure it could. But there are people in this mix who hold power and who are beneficiaries of the runaway spending. As these conditions solidify, we return to the familiar patterns of a growing, better-and-better-paid administrative class, rising tuition, and institutional inertia–conditions for inflexibility that cannot help but compromise the quality of academic programs while reaching as deeply as possible into the pockets of those who are most cheated–students.
  • For these issues to continue circulating, for them to become unstuck and for EMU to take up the hard work of institutional change will require more (and more public) faculty voices than Bunsis’. Discontent has been building for at least a few years, and it makes athletics difficult to really get behind, while sapping the morale in academic units on campus (where in some very specific cases, none of last year’s 7.8% tuition increase landed).
  • I’ve attended at least one football game every year since I was hired seven years ago. Ron English was the coach back then, and I recall that faculty (perhaps only new faculty) were provided season tickets for home games free of charge. But this has not happened since. This season, for the first time, I purchased season basketball tickets for both men’s and women’s programs. I went to maybe 20 home games, total. I noticed at the football game–season opener–that tickets cost considerably more than in past years, enough to make me pause and wonder whether at that price point I would return. Exiting the stadium after that game, I walked with two colleagues, and we found that half of the stadium was not only vacant but that many of the exits were locked. The Convocation Center, where basketball and a few other indoor sports compete, tends to feel better occupied for home events, but the entire upper deck of the stadium (much like the entire away side of Rynearson) is blocked off with tarps that prohibit anyone from sitting there. These are expensive tarps, too, elaborate in their printing and designed to condense the facility’s attendees, mitigate the traffic areas for cleaning, and so on.  There are numerous minor details to point out about the experience of attending these events that I won’t go into, but suffice it to say that these small details, such as the merchandise shop rarely being open during home basketball games, resonates with an overall impression of flagging institutional investment in the fan experience. That is, the investment is purely financial; it doesn’t show up as a more compelling experience at the events themselves.
  • Finally (for now), I’ll reiterate that without pointing a finger at anyone or calling into question the wisdom of university leadership in such matters, wherever that responsibility might fall, football in particular has been implicated in some questionable and expensive choices lately, from extravagant uniforms whose digital readout-like letterforms made it impossible to distinguish sevens and ones to efforts to rebrand Rynearson Stadium as “The Factory”–a move that to this day is an unsettlingly absurd turn of events. With concession stands called “Assembly Line,” gray artificial turf, hard hats, a quitting time whistle upon major in-game events, and promotional gimmicks that put real sledge hammers in the hands of football players so they can pose as if about to swing away at loose-stacked cinder block, “The Factory” is downright embarrassing–a conceptual fumble whose oh-no-not-again weight is heavier than all of the real football team’s real turnovers (punts included) for the last decade. I’d better not go on. But I sure would hope that investing bags of money in a wobbly enterprise would take greater care than to put good, long-loaned tuition dollars behind such an unconscionable rebranding effort as that.

This is enough for today, enough for now. I’ll end with one last quotation from a news article circulating in Mlive today, “EMU AD Lyke: ‘no question’ football must improve, wants to stay in MAC“:

In addition, a report, issued by members of the Faculty Senate Budget and Resources Committee, the EMU-AAUP and the student body, points to an increase in the total full time equivalent athletic staff from 64 in 2006-07 to 85 in 2015-16. Staff salaries doubled from $3.2 million to $6.4 million as the department saw 10 more coaching positions and more than 11 “athletic personnel” added during the same time period. During that same time period, the report indicates EMU’s entire faculty increased by just 15.78 full-time equivalent personnel.

Here is where the frustration builds most pointedly: in the quiet, whispered truths like this that are uncomfortable to circulate because they amount to breathing lungfuls day in and day out of some fetid campus wind. In rates of personnel growth like this comes the disproportionately burdensome long-term investment that sets the university and its most vulnerable academic programs on a (possibly) disastrous course–unchecked spending justified by bizarre attachments to notions that ESPN broadcasts will compel, what? droves of new students? more ad revenue for activities not on ESPN? sudden national interest or relevance? I don’t know. But I will continue to pay attention as this plays out and try to make some sense of it in an occasional entry.

Michigan Transfer Agreement (MTA)

A few weeks ago, I attended a “Regional Faculty Conversation” about the new Michigan Transfer Agreement (MTA), an effort to update and improve seamless transfer among Michigan’s community colleges and public colleges and universities. There were three such conversations across the state in three days. I attended the four-hour get-together at Washtenaw Community College along with approximately 50 faculty and administrators from other programs in SE Michigan (e.g., Jackson College, Schoolcraft, Washtenaw CC, Henry Ford, Wayne State, Saginaw Valley State, UM-Dearborn, and EMU). The new MTA is an update to MACRAO, which has been the acronym used to name a comparable agreement initiated 42 years ago (though not updated since) and also for the Michigan Association of Collegiate Registrars & Admissions Officers.

The MTA was approved by the state-wide Council of Presidents last September, and it is scheduled to begin this fall. According to those who led the conversation, the state legislature prompted the update to MACROA in 2011. Generally, the agreement is a good idea. It is student-friendly and it stands to encourage efforts across two- and four-year colleges to make sure their lower division courses bear family resemblance. It brings Michigan into alignment with comparable efforts in other states. And it is long overdue. Forty-two years should not pass without such an agreement being revisited, but that’s the sort of thick-crust stagnation that becomes possible absent any high education authority in the state.

I’m writing a bit about MTA, though, and translating my notes into this entry, because the agreement includes a significant change related to writing. This slide sums up that change. Additional materials from the meeting are available at the Michigan Center for Student Success website.

Essentially, the highlighted lines indicate that the old agreement, MACRAO, required students to complete a two-course sequence in writing. MACRAO is clear about this point: students had to complete six credit hours in English Composition. The MTA, however, allows students to satisfy the agreement (and therefore, to become eligible for a full general education waiver) with one composition course and a second course in composition or speech. The new requirement requires less writing, and yet we are at the same time hearing continued pleas for more writing on all sides, particularly among campus stakeholders.

It might not seem like much, but this change creates conditions at odds with the design of first-year writing programs premised on a Comp I and Comp II sequence, in which Comp I offers foundational experience with writing in college and Comp II builds upon and extends those experiences to include research-based academic writing. The new MTA appears to create a path into the university along which students could satisfy general education never having explicit, direct experience with research-based academic writing. Stop for a moment to consider this. I mean this as a fair characterization of what the MTA sets up, and I would urge caution before weighing in with axiological conclusions, tempting though they might be. Late last summer, Michigan WPAs wrote, signed, and sent a letter expressing concerns about this change, but the Council of Presidents approved the MTA and assented to its Fall 2014 implementation in spite of the request for more consideration of the change to writing and input from faculty colleagues with expertise, training, and experience in rhetoric/composition/writing studies and writing program administration.

This preamble should be enough to catch others up on a few of the concerns that continuing faculty conversations might address.

  • At the May 15 Regional Faculty Conversation, there was quite a bit of discussion about convening a subcommittee who would suggest changes to the MTA that would clarify the focus of the composition course required to satisfy the MTA. Without such clarification, the MTA (as written) appears to allow one-credit writing courses (i.e., nothing explicitly prohibits this). It also allows combinations of Comp I and speech. Comp I could be online, accelerated, basic skills focused, or just about anything ranging from computationally scored five-paragraph themes to full-on project-based and portfolio-assessed courses. The subcommittee would, as much as possible, define common ground for the composition course. But would its input be incorporated into MTA? At the May 15 meeting, it remained unclear whether revisions, amendments, or footnotes could be introduced after this fall. Notably, the MTA doesn’t include any explicit provision for updates or future revisions.
  • Input throughout the process was either mishandled, miscommunicated, or never regarded as especially important by those organizing and leading the project. It’s not clear. Perhaps there was a sense that representation was adequate? To be fair, input would have slowed the process down, and it would have been resource-intensive to invite and involve more people. Math faculty were able to convene a group who collaborated to define the expectations for the math course. But writing did not receive a comparable invitation until recently, after the agreement was approved. Pressing this point–why, exactly?–brought to the surface different characterizations of how the MTA developed, from one version suggesting it was measured and deliberative, evenspread over the two years it was developed to another version indicating that the change to the composition requirement happened at the last minute.
  • The rationale for the change to writing is also difficult to pinpoint. Nobody would confirm it at the May 15 meeting, but it has elsewhere surfaced speculatively that the last minute change was an effort to bring Michigan State on board with the agreement. That is, because MSU only requires one composition course and a speech course, it creates conditions amenable to transferring to or away from MSU, which, once it was on board, was the largest public university in the state to participate in the agreement (i.e., University of Michigan does not). Whether or not this is valid, the changes to the writing requirement should have been based on something more substantive, e.g., evidence from participating institutions about how students with or without a two-course writing sequence during the first two years of college fare relative to their counterparts who do not take two writing courses. If they graduate at equal rates, maybe there isn’t anything more to consider here (aside from the caveat that high-achieving high school students oftentimes by-pass the two-course sequence because of exemptions and waivers).
  • Authority for the agreement remains ambiguous. That is, Michigan does not have a higher ed authority, and the MTA does not come with an implementation officer (even temporarily; its implementation is steered primarily by a 13-page handbook and a few similar documents, including FAQs and checklists. Who should programs contact for an authoritative stance on whether or not a program can require a course for MTA-eligible students, provided that same course is required for all FTIACs? The MTA seems to be rolling out with loose consent, and the agreement itself, as written, doesn’t spell out strict conditions that adopters must follow. For instance, at EMU, we’re told we can continue to require Writing Intensive courses as a fixture in General Education, but we cannot require all students satisfy ENGL/WRTG121: Comp II or its equivalent because that’s considered a “proviso,” and provisos are prohibited by the MTA.

That’s enough for now. Like I said, I don’t see much urgency in guessing how this is going to play out. I put my name in for the committee and would consider pitching in if and when such a group convenes. I suspect we already have more consensus across programs than we have had much chance to explore, much less articulate. And in fact, one of the most promising take-aways from the regional faculty meeting was a sense that we could begin exploring something like a SE Michigan alliance of writing programs that would help us tremendously toward articulating what we hold in common curricularly and also bench-marking for the persistent WPA arguments concerning part-time lecturer (over)reliance, full-time lecturer teaching loads, course caps, and so on. Other than that, as far as the MTA is concerned, we will continue to seek better institutional data that can tell us how FTIACs who take the two-course sequence compare with FTIACs who take only ENGL/WRTG121: Comp II compare with transfer students, in all matters of retention and graduation rates as well as performance in upper division WI courses. Better data will help us understand whether we have cause to be concerned, whether we have exigency to make further adjustments to the writing curriculum at EMU.