If Academia Operated Like the Professional Sports Universe
The recent Manny Ramirez saga, which culminated yesterday afternoon when the Red Sox traded him for fifty cents on the dollar to the Los Angeles Dodgers, has made me wonder: what would the world be like if academia operated like the professional sports universe? As Peter Gammons has explained, the Sox realized that Manny had decided to dial it in for the rest of the season, unhappy that the brass refused to guarantee his salary for the next two seasons. “Boston doesn’t deserve a great player like me,” he pleaded to the media.
The Manny episode undermines the entire concept of sports, especially the lucrative salaries of athletes. The fans have always assumed that because sports is “a business,” a phrase we hear tossed around a lot, players will conduct themselves as professionals and expend maximum effort while playing (as well as otherwise dedicating themselves to a relentless pursuit of a championship). And then there’s Manny Ramirez.
Ramirez taught me a valuable lesson last fall. When the Sox got pushed to the brink of elimination by Cleveland, he quipped that if the Sox were to loose, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I realized in that moment that the energy and passion I expend each night while willing the Red Sox to victory beside my TV set is especially meaningless when the people most able to help them win each night, the players, are essentially ambivalent about the outcome of the game. Of course, Manny’s relaxed attitude ultimately paid off, as the Sox rattled off three straight wins in the ALCS and went on to win the 2007 World Series.
Nevertheless, the entire Manny-Being-Manny saga has unsettled our assumptions that athletes care as much about our teams’ success as we the fans do. Now, in the post-Ramirez era, we’re left to wonder what really prevents athletes from playing at about 85 percent of their capacity, sabotaging a crucial series, or otherwise not fulfilling their end of the multi-million dollar bargain that weds them to their team and its fans.
The rest of the world doesn’t operate this way, or at least most of it anyway. In a normal job, one that isn’t protected by unions, nepotism, or tenure, if you decide to dial it in, you get fired. There are no guaranteed contracts. So this is what has made me curious about the possibility of applying the same market value system that dictates professional talent to academia. Imagine this world with me.
Each academic department has a dream every year: to be at the top of the U.S. News & World Report College Rankings. To achieve that goal, it distributes its budget on the best talent available. Star intellectuals command lucrative salaries, perks (like prestigious titles and lavish research funds), and facilities, libraries, that are second to none. Each department also has an academics farm system. We’ll call these minor leaguers “graduate students.” Those promising minor leaguers quickly ascend the farm system ranks, whereby they are whisked away into the professional sphere, enticed by loftier research endowments and start-up funds. An assistant professor (hereafter referred to as “rookie”) has a breakout year; she writes a book and wins a Fulbright. Dazzled by her increased marketability, the rookie tests the free-agent market, which she uses to leverage her way into a long-term deal with the department that made her a pro.
You get the analogy I’m drawing here. Yet, in academia, where the function of tenure and promotion has shifted from being a safeguard against attacks on intellectual freedom to an award of infinite job security, its talented workforce is not subject to the same demands as the athletics world. Let’s say an academic were to dial in, in the model of Manny Ramirez. He skips out on answering e mails, recycles old, unsuccessful syllabi, skips meetings, offers to hold a wet t-shirt contest for his undergraduate students at his house, or worse. He can’t be traded. The dean is not a general manager who’ll be able to shop away the bad apple for an aging Marxist geographer, three graduate students, and a TA line to be named later.
Could this model work for the ivory tower? Would it work? It seems to be in the spirit of free-market enterprise that informs many institutions in higher education today.