Compile a list of classes a university student needs to take.
English? Certainly. Math? Of course. Science? Check. History? Sure.
The growth of college sports over the past 60 years? Maybe not.
That last answer points toward one of the most interesting unexplored elements in a recent controversy involving the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Raleigh News & Observer informed us earlier this month that the Chapel Hill campus had axed History 383, “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956 to the present,” for the next academic year. The newspaper offered juicy details about the process that led to the course’s demise.
But this observer searched in vain for the answer to a basic question: Why should UNC offer this course?
That question loomed even larger after a longtime N&O columnist reacted to the initial report with the following observation: “If ever there was a college campus where a history course in college athletics — ‘big-time’ athletics — was more appropriate, or more needed, it’s the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.”
Before responding to that claim, it’s important to note that this column will not defend UNC actions that generated a multiyear, still-unresolved scandal involving bogus paper classes.
Though proud to have been among the thousands of undergrads who jumped up and down like idiots in the cold rain on Franklin Street while celebrating the 1993 national basketball championship, this observer still recognizes inherent problems associated with the athletics department’s tail wagging the university’s dog.
This column also rejects efforts to abridge academic freedom. There’s no good reason to let political or public relations concerns block the university from offering a worthwhile course.
The N&O article suggests that fears of potential “blowback” played a major role in determining the fate of the big-time college sports class. And it’s at least as disturbing as it is amusing to read in that article that UNC’s athletics director suggested that he would be better-suited to teach the class than a history professor.
While recognizing potential pitfalls of big-time college sports and the importance of free academic inquiry, it’s still worth asking: Is History 383 “appropriate” for UNC? Is it “needed”?
History professor Jay Smith created and taught the course last summer and fall. Advertised in the N&O as a specialist in French and European history, Smith has stepped outside of his area of professional expertise in recent years to share frequent concerns about UNC athletics. He co-wrote the 2015 book, Cheated, about the ongoing UNC paper-class scandal.
Based in part on the book, and using it as a primary text, History 383 “got overwhelmingly positive student reviews,” according to the newspaper report, with several students labeling it “the best class they’d taken at UNC.”
One rising junior from Cary, a “huge” Tar Heel sports fan, described the course as among her “most demanding.”
Demanding sounds good. What follows in the N&O story raises a red flag.
“I definitely have a different perspective on it now, because I’m going to argue on behalf of the student athletes instead of the athletic department because of all the things I’ve learned,” the student is quoted as saying.
She goes on to decry a “huge system failure” that extends beyond bad apples on the Chapel Hill campus.
Given the student’s comments, let’s consider the value History 383 added to her largely taxpayer-funded university education.
It’s doubtful that there’s a direct vocational impact. In other words, learning about the rise of big-time college sports over the past 60 years is unlikely to help her get a job.
But that’s not the only potential benefit from a university course. Did History 383 help her develop clear reasoning skills? Give her access to important historical knowledge that will enhance her role as an enlightened citizen? Hone her research capabilities? Help her evaluate competing philosophical arguments with a critical eye?
Perhaps. But the quote suggests a much narrower impact, at least for this individual student. It suggests the course helped convert a young college sports fan into an advocate for campus athletes, not necessarily a deeper thinker with a greater well of knowledge about the world at large.
The most disturbing paragraph in the N&O’s original story explains that Smith recommended History 383 to be offered last fall “instead of his honors history course, which drew only four student registrations.”
Did the roughly 30 students who learned about “big-time” college sports last fall take away more value from their course than four students would have gained from a more traditional honors history course? It’s impossible to say definitively, but this observer has his doubts.
A typical undergraduate will take roughly 40 classes before earning her degree. It’s hard to picture a course tailored narrowly to “big-time” college sports issues coming anywhere near the top 40 on the priority list.
This says nothing about Professor Smith, who might be an especially captivating and inspiring teacher. A graduate-level seminar for people heading into sports-related professions might make sense. There’s little doubt that a public lecture on big-time college sports would prove enlightening.
But it’s hard to see History 383 as providing more than limited value to undergraduate students. They ought to use their four years in Chapel Hill as basic building blocks for a lifetime of personal and professional growth as citizens and scholars.
Is it an appropriate class for UNC? Maybe. Needed? Probably not.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.