Islands of Excellence

Dr. Malcolm Cross

The big news coming out of Tarleton last week was its admission to NCAA Division One.  Athletics, always a concern here, will become even more so.  This can be a very good thing.

Athletic contests—whether they involve football, baseball, basketball, track and field, swimming, or any of the myriad of Olympic sports—all have similar characteristics.  They feature competition within a well-defined set of rules and, more importantly, the teams and players who do the best reap the greatest benefits—trophies, medals, cash, the designation of being “winners” and the attendant prestige and other benefits.  In short, there is a direct relationship between achievement and reward.

At the college level, at least, games of whatever nature can be seen as “islands of excellence” in an environment where the relationship between achievement and reward is gradually weakening.  For example, many schools, in their effort to promote “diversity,” consider, in their admissions policies, factors which have nothing to do with academic excellence and everything to do with the promotion of other ideologically driven outcomes.  It is widely believed that if the student body of a given school has predetermined percentages of men, women, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, etc., etc., etc., the quality of their educational experience will somehow be enhanced.  To that end, race, ethnicity, gender, and other factors are used to determine admission and, by definition, exclusion, even though there is no inherent relationship between these factors and ability.

This practice is relatively benign.  Certainly, schools who do this are less greedy than those who admit the children of wealthy donors, and less evil than schools which have discriminated against Jews or African Americans in their admissions policies, to mention two groups that have been especially victimized in the not-so-distant past.  

I don’t know the degree, if any, to which Tarleton currently employs criteria other than merit in its admissions and employment procedures.  I personally play no role in the admissions policy at Tarleton.  On none of the faculty recruitment committees on which I’ve served have issues of race or gender ever been discussed in my presence (although years ago my first informal and nonbinding job offer was rescinded because I’m white, and then re-extended and formalized when no person of color could be induced to come here in 1987).

But Tarleton and other public universities in Texas (in my opinion, at least) have been adversely affected by the legislature’s mandate that they use criteria developed by right-wing “think” tanks—not that thinking always produces intelligent ideas– affiliated with the Republican Party to measure faculty achievement and student success.  For example, the legislature has mandated a growing role for student-completed teaching evaluations to measure the quality of a professor’s teaching—in other words, the  “best” professors are considered to be those who are the most liked, which is not necessarily the same as those whose students learn the most.  And the legislature in recent years has sought to give more aid to schools who give more diplomas to more students, as if the number of diplomas handed out at commencement time indicated that more students were actually learning more in the classroom.

So here is where organized athletics can be especially valuable:  It can remind us that there can, and should, be awards based on merit, and that the better one does, the more one reaps, without regard to race, gender, class, popularity, or any other factor not related to ability and achievement.

Of course, it is possible to imagine abuses.  One can find many stories in which misconduct, real and alleged, of players and coaches has been overlooked or covered up in the name of winning (I have no personal knowledge of anything of this nature happening at Tarleton and make no accusations).  And the proper allocation of resources between athletics and academics will always be a topic of debate.

But as long as athletic programs remain islands of excellence in which the quality of effort and ability triumph, they should remain invaluable parts of every school’s program.  And if the spirit of excellence on the playing field gets transferred to other parts of a school’s program, so much the better.

Play on.


Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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