Higher Education Emulates the National Football League

The “Rooney Rule” is the latest debasement of academia.

The controversial halftime show at Super Bowl 50 demonstrated–if any proof was needed–that the NFL is in the entertainment business. The football cartel’s ratings-conscious bean counters carefully assessed television demographics to maximize the spectacle’s appeal to the broadest possible audience–bread and circuses for the masses. It worked.  The musical trifecta of Coldplay, Beyoncé, and Bruno Mars was a cynical mishmash of genres that helped attract a viewing audience of nearly 112 million people to an otherwise boring game.  Professional football is big business, and it was fitting that the 50th iteration of the championship game was held in Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium, a taxpayer-funded facility that—with a price tag of $1.3 billion—constitutes a stupendous wealth transfer from taxpayers to a professional sports team (the San Francisco 49ers).

This is the business model the higher education cartel wishes to emulate.  Competition is restricted through the accreditation process, faculty cartels such as the American Association of University Professors, and trade associations such as the Association of American Colleges & Universities and the elite Association of American Universities.  Taxpayer subsidies are an indispensable component of higher education today.  State-funded colleges and universities receive direct taxpayer support, and nearly all institutions—public and private—depend on enormous amounts of federal student loans (about $103 billion last year), tens of billions of dollars in federal student grants each year, and $75.6 billion in federal grants and other benefits paid directly to schools annually.

Just as government largesse results in Taj Mahal facilities, inflated ticket prices and gargantuan salaries for coaches and players in the NFL, massive federal subsidies and restricted competition have led to Club Med-style campus amenities, sharp increases in college tuition nationwide, bloated administrative bureaucracies, and absurdly generous compensation packages for academic managers, many of whom earn seven figure salaries with princely perks.  The latest innovation, however, takes the cake: Diversity in hiring, NFL-style.

Where merit counts, the NFL is still ruthlessly competitive.   “Player combines” are an athletic free-for-all measuring candidates’ quickness and agility, with no consideration given to race, ethnicity, “gender identity,” or membership in an “underrepresented group.” On the NFL playing field, unlike the university classroom, there is no “affirmative action.”  Coaching and front office jobs are a different matter.  In 2003, in response to the controversial firings of black head coaches by two NFL teams, the NFL established the “Rooney Rule” (named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who headed the league’s diversity committee), requiring NFL teams to interview minority candidates for all head coaching and senior football operation jobs.

Controversy is bad for business; potential boycotts make advertisers skittish.  Requiring teams to interview minority candidates before filling positions was a blatant form of preferential consideration, which produced the desired result of boosting minority hiring.  PR problem solved.  The heavy-handed Rooney Rule was designed to—and did—placate civil rights activists such as Johnnie Cochran (best known for successfully defending OJ Simpson) and avoid claims of discrimination.  At least there is an ample supply of qualified black coach candidates—many NFL players are African-American, and players often become coaches.

There are obviously differences between football and higher education.  One is a game based on (sometimes brutal) physical contact, and one is purely cerebral.  The potential ways to advance or defend the movement of a football are finite, whereas the capacity for improving humankind through education is usually considered to be limitless.  Higher education is supposed to be a meritocracy, in which the best scholars and classroom teachers compete for positions at the nation’s leading colleges and universities.  With the enormous resources entrusted to them, and the solemn responsibility of educating our youth—in addition to honoring the timeless academic ideal of pursuing knowledge—one would think that the higher education establishment would zealously defend the integrity of the hiring process.

If the goal is excellence, then individual merit, intellectual rigor, and scholarly productivity should be paramount.   If the goal is something else–achieving “diversity,” currying favor with the political correctness crowd, or establishing hiring quotas, for example—a school might adopt the equivalent of the Rooney Rule.  If, for whatever reason, a school sought attention for abandoning meritocracy, it might even publicize its decision.  And if a school cravenly sought progressive approbation, it might even issue a press release calling the new policy “its own ‘Rooney Rule’ to promote diversity in senior leadership positions.”  The University of Texas system, with 14 campuses and 217,000 students, has done just that.

At the initiative of UT Chancellor Bill McRaven, UT recently adopted a policy explicitly based on the NFL’s Rooney Rule, with the avowed goal of making the UT faculty, administrators, and campus leaders more representative of UT’s student body (the artificially-diverse nature of which is currently under challenge in the Fisher v. UT case).   The actual policy—undoubtedly scrubbed by UT’s lawyers—carefully recites that only “qualified” candidates should be interviewed, and that “all ultimate hiring decisions must comply with applicable federal and state laws.”

The big “wink” comes in the requirement that the pool of candidates to be interviewed for all covered positions must include “female, male and underrepresented group candidates,” the last term meaning any demographic classification other than white.  And, in a departure from the colorblindness that typically accompanies the application process, candidates must be allowed to “flag” their gender and “membership in an underrepresented group” as part of their application.  Any hiring manager who claims that a qualified “underrepresented group candidate” is not available for an interview must obtain prior written approval from a higher-ranking UT official based on “documentation to justify the exception.”  In other words, if a hiring decision maker at UT values his career, he will always interview finalists who are “members of an underrepresented group,” and hire white males at his peril.

Even if one accepts the NFL as an appropriate model for higher education to emulate, there is a serious problem with adopting the Rooney Rule for senior administrative positions in higher education—the applicant pool of qualified minorities in academia is much more limited than the ranks of professional football players wishing to become NFL coaches.  In higher education, and especially in STEM disciplines, there is an acute shortage of female, black, and Hispanic doctoral candidates.  Perhaps this explains why UT and other schools are scurrying around to establish “African and African Diaspora Studies” departments and programs such as the newly-created Center to Study Race and Democracy.  There is no shortage of minority scholars to staff such dubious disciplines.

The biggest difference between the NFL and the higher education establishment—and what makes UT’s adoption of the Rooney Rule a transparent pretense for hiring quotas—is that success in professional football is governed by an objective metric: which team wins more games.  Unless a team has the best-trained and most skilled players, coached by the craftiest experts, it will lose against a superior squad.  Academia has no corresponding criterion for success.  In fact, the highest-paid faculty members rarely teach, focusing on research and publications.  The administrative ranks grow, even as tuitions rise, graduation rates stagnate, and academic achievement declines.  (UT recently discontinued use of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, ostensibly due to the $92,000 annual cost, but more likely because UT’s placement in the bottom quartile was an embarrassment.)  Higher education adamantly resists accountability, something fans would never stand for in the NFL.  It is ironic that the public takes performance more seriously in football than in lavishly-funded colleges and universities.

If higher education wants to mimic the NFL, we should insist on performance-based rankings—and even an academic Super Bowl—for universities.