Murray State University:  Philosophy or Football?

Dear Commons Community,

Paul Walker, associate professor of English at Murray State University, has an article in The Chronicle of Education, proposing that his university treat football the same way it treated the philosophy department.  Here is an excerpt from Professor Walker’s piece:

“About 15 years ago, the English department at my institution, Murray State University, absorbed the philosophy department because it had too few majors to justify having its own administrative staff. It still has fewer philosophy majors than desired, which is quite likely true at other similar-sized institutions as well, and soon that shortage might lead to a reduction of philosophy faculty and a limiting of core philosophy courses.

That’s because the Kentucky legislature has voted to use performance metrics for public state universities. These metrics ostensibly reward institutions for meeting retention, graduation, and other quantitative measurements, but they will also mean potential punishments for academic programs that are unable to financially justify their place. That’s a consequence unlikely to be faced by athletic programs at my institution as well as others. This situation raises difficult questions for administrators, alumni, and fans, and it should be dealt with honestly.

Murray State, if anyone has heard of us, has a pretty good “mid-major” men’s basketball team, consistently winning 20 games or more a year, appearing in the NCAA top 10 ranking in 2011-12, and competing often in the NCAA tournament and other postseason tournaments.

The football team, however, is another story. A winning season is rare, though exceptional seasons occurred decades ago under the coaches Frank Beamer and Houston Nutt, both of whom bolted to larger institutions, leaving Murray State to its usual mediocrity as a steppingstone for ambitious coaches. And because football requires the largest number of athletic scholarships and highest costs to sustain, the question is: Can our university, or any university, exist without a football team?

The answer, of course, is yes. But such a suggestion, here and at most other public institutions, is met with doubt or disdain — not because our Racers football team is financially viable (it isn’t), but because intercollegiate football, or basketball, is perceived as the face of the modern public university, large or small. To reduce the role of football, whether by elimination or by designating it non-scholarship, represents a change that few dare to broach.

Murray State will most likely rely on the NCAA’s academic policies and consider any independent “performance measurement” as too disruptive to the athletics-conference structure to which we belong. Yet considering that 65 percent of our athletics budget is subsidized by the university rather than by athletics revenue, one has to wonder whether the money is well spent, and if nonstudent-athletes, who pay an athletics fee, and who compose the majority of the student body, are slighted in terms of funding.

Those who defend athletics point to intangibles such as “school spirit,” the communal experience of attending games, or keeping alumni involved. Our basketball team, without question, brings excitement to campus and beyond, but few people here care about football. It’s even possible that the award-winning Racer Marching Band draws more spectators to football games than the team itself does.”

Professor Walker makes a good point.   Public colleges and universities in some parts of the country such as the northeast have already abandoned Division I football.  As Professor Walker suggests, I am sure that the savings realized by merging philosophy into the English department was not very much compared to the costs of running the football program.



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