Penn State and the crisis of the American University.

The Penn State crisis reveals a deeper crisis than the Sandusky crimes where a sexual predator preyed on young boys.  The crisis is more than the cover up of the crimes described in the grand jury document and the Freeh report.  Although these are horrific in their own right, they are symptoms of a deeper crisis within the American university.  What they show the American face of the nihilism that has destroyed the university’s intellectual and moral unity where only the sports-industrial complex remains as the focus.  Instead of being a place to produce scholars, the university has become an “education factory” where research is produced on an academic assembly line.  The university is driven by the pursuit of profit like every other corporation.  The modern American university is a corporation that has sold its academic, intellectual and moral principles. Yet, the betrayal of academics to athletics reveals as well that the modern university is unsustainable.  The market logic where athletics is another profit stream undermines the university as an education factory producing research as its product line.

Athletics over academics: what price glory?

The surface problem is nihilism which corroded the university’s unity encouraged it to pursue athletics over academics.  The university no longer believes in its founding purpose. Newman’s idea of a university’s unity is no longer what holds a university together.  Corroded by academic nihilism, the university has no intellectual unity.  It is a place for research and not scholarship.  The business model now defines the university’s unity. The academic product (research) and athletics are competing and complementary revenue streams. Like all corporations, the dominant function is that which produces the most revenue. As a result, athletics, rather than academics, is its dominant function, responsibility, and aspiration.  How the NCAA and Penn State handled the Sandusky crisis show clearly how and why the university is now a corporation masquerading as an academic institution.

Reputation Management is not a search for truth

Penn State accepted the penalties as business decisions, not as academic decisions.  Like a corporation, Penn State is more interested in managing its reputation rather than discovering the truth of what went wrong by asking or pursuing the existential questions.  Penn State did not consider, explore, or debate why the programme exists or its role in the university. For Penn State, the answer has been given.  At no point did the university say “We are a university, a place for scholarship first, and a place for athletics and its business second.”  Instead Penn State (and the NCAA) did everything possible to retain, defend, and protect the football programme. Penn State’s leaders claimed it will instil a new culture. Their noble words are betrayed by their ignoble actions.  There will be no change.  They have signalled to everyone that the football programme and all that it entails is more important than the pursuit of truth.

 The university is a corporation not an academic institution

The issue is more than a football programme out of control. The issue more than college athletics is now a business. They are just two characteristics of the sports-industrial complex that is college athletics. The issue is that the university is no longer a university.  Instead, it is a corporation and not a place for scholarship. Penn State pursued (and pursues) football victories at any cost instead of pursuing truth and wisdom at any cost.  When the university officials protected the football programme, they were not acting to defend a higher philosophical truth. Instead, they sacrificed the university’s highest principles to protect their investment in a coach, his programme, and the corporation’s reputation.   When Heidegger betrayed the German university to National Socialism, he believed he was doing it to save the academy. He thought he was acting in the higher cause of philosophical truth. In America, nihilism has a different accent.  When American academics betrayed the university, they did it for the money.

The university as a research factory

We should not be surprised at these developments.  They represent the deeper nihilism that is devouring the American university.   As Heidegger warned, the university is no longer a place for scholarship. The scholar, who pursues truth, has disappeared only to be replaced with the researcher, who provides a research “product”.  The university is no longer a place for scholarship because it has no intellectual unity. Instead, it is a business to attract and keep researchers. The American university in particular has embraced the idea that research is another product like any other.  As Heidegger wrote in the Question on Technology “The Age of the World Picture” p.125,  without unity, the university is no longer produces scholars but researchers.

“Hence the decisive development of the modern character of science as ongoing activity also forms men of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine along with him which books must be written (Appendix 3).

The research worker necessarily presses forward of himself into the sphere characteristic of the technologist in the essential sense. Only in this way is he capable of acting effectively, and only thus, after the manner of his age, is he real. Alongside him, the increasingly thin and empty Romanticism of scholarship and the university will still be able to persist for some time in a few places. However, the effective unity characteristic of the university, and hence the latter’s reality, does not lie in some intellectual power belonging to an original unification of the sciences and emanating from the university because nourished by it and preserved in it. The university is real as an orderly establishment that, in a form still unique because it is administratively self-contained, makes possible and visible the striving apart of the sciences into the particularization and peculiar unity that belong to ongoing activity.

As mentioned earlier, the university has disavowed a belief in an academic unity, which, in turn, means its sees scholarship reduced to research.  The university is only unified around a corporate business model where profits are pursued at the cost of philosophy. The corporate model and the nihilism mean that the modern university is nothing but a husk.  The Sandusky crisis, among others, shows the university has lost its moral authority.  The American university can no longer teach a moral truth because it no longer believes in one.  The university’s intellectual or philosophical unity, the foundation for its moral authority has been eroded by Heidegger’s nihilism.  As Bloom showed in The Closing of the American Mind, Heidegger has destroyed the university’s intellectual authority.  Penn State and the sports-industrial complex have shown us that the university’s unity based on its scholarship, a search for truth and wisdom in a community of scholars, is gone.

Academics may believe they can console themselves with the belief that the university uses athletics to finance their higher academic work.  What this shows is they do not understand the university.  Academic research is now a product like any other.  The academic’s existence, the arguments they use, perpetuate the business model of an “education factory” producing research and researchers.  The last, ironic, betrayal is that the sports industrial complex they abhor confirms the need for the university to be an “education factory”. The university now depends on the sports-industrial complex as a continuing revenue stream.  Even without the sports industrial complex, the pursuit of research, rather than knowledge, is what drives the university. The best universities, even those without football programmes, have stopped producing scholars. They have become a factory driven by research and the need to produce profits.  When scholars do emerge, it is in spite rather than because of the university.

 Social media erodes the university’s research factory

Heidegger who shares some responsibility for the university’s destruction described the university’s change from scholarship to research.  As the university is now a research factory, it faces pressure from social media to its business model.  The university attracts and retains researchers by what it offers as a corporation; its money, its location, and the community. Social media undermines the university as a corporation because it means that research no longer have to be bound to a university.  The researcher can go anywhere, work from anywhere, and find money anywhere.  Universities are no longer destinations.  They are transient entities, a shell corporation, filled by researchers attracted by promises of money, grants, and positions. Social media undermines the university’s physical unity and its corporate model unity. The intellectual community that used to define the university can be found in the virtual world. What is ironic is that social media corrodes the university’s business model by encouraging, requiring, the academic emulate the researcher instead of the scholar.

What is inside the university is what defines the country

Once we strip away athletics and research, what is left of a university? Today, it is a social network that produces an “education” product rather than a place to nurture and cultivate the mind.  So, the next time you fret about the BCS or “March Madness” pause and consider what your university does and what it has become.  Is it a place for learning or is it a corporation?  Then, consider what this means for America. Are you surprised at Enron, Lehman Brothers, or the financial crisis? The universities have left a moral void where the love of gain has eclipsed the love of knowledge.



About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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