Friday, February 12, 2010

Fat Who Dat Priorities

I have a bone to pick with Tulane University President Scott Cowen. Before I get to pickin' this bone, I ought to preface my comments by noting that I have a particular admiration for Scott Cowen on many, many levels. I think he was a fantastic leader following Hurricane Katrina and I really think some of his initiatives at Tulane have really made an effort to transform certain elements of Tulane's reputation and academic culture for the better. For instance, the commitment to Service Learning and the embrace of community-based knowledge as a part of a Tulane College education is something wonderfully transformative in the lives and the intellectual development of students. In fact, it has even been transformative for me as well. And this is just one of a number of things for which I have no problems heaping praise upon Scott Cowen. As far as University Presidents go, Tulane could not have picked a better one than Scott Cowen.

But, that said, I think Cowen's decision this past Monday to close the University on Tuesday afternoon was a huge disappointment. In fact, not only was it a disappointment to me on principle, but it also really screwed up my carefully-planned teaching schedule. Instead of giving me a break, this "holiday" actually doubled my work load in the end. You see, I teach a once-a-week Honors seminar on Tuesdays from 3:30pm-6:00pm. So, by closing the University this past Tuesday, I was left with the prospect of losing what amounts to an entire week of courses. Furthermore, this coming Tuesday is Mardi Gras, so I was looking at the prospect of not having a class meeting for three weeks! And that simply could not be, especially since what I had planned for this past Tuesday's class was time sensitive (i.e. it had to take place before the Mardi Gras break) and would have had a significant effect on the students' entire assignment schedule for the semester. The only way I could keep my class on track was to try to scramble to set up a makeup class before the week was out -- and with evening parades and the Mardi Gras mood setting in, the task was daunting.

Once the decision was made to close the university on Tuesday afternoon, I had to contact my students immediately to try to reschedule the class. And I only had a day or two to do this. Of course, it was impossible to get all my students together for a single makeup class session, so I ended up having to offer TWO separate make-up sessions -- one on Wednesday evening and another on Thursday afternoon. This is what I meant by having my work load doubled by this ill-advised decision. I got through it, but wasn't happy with the headaches and stress that accompanied this scramble.

But what really bothered and disappointed me was not only the real reason for the cancellation, but also the seeming disingenuousness with which Scott Cowen tried to paper over this real reason. Everyone and his grandmother knew that the real reason Cowen closed the university was because there was to be a victory parade for the Superbowl Champion Saints in the early evening of Tuesday in downtown New Orleans. Why this bothered me was the precedent it set in terms of projecting the relative value of Academics as it relates to Sports. In essence, Scott Cowen was broadcasting to everyone that an event celebrating a professional sporting accomplishment was more important to the university than its educational mission!! But what irked me perhaps even more was what I considered to be the disingenuousness in how Scott Cowen tried to pass off his decision as something not really related to a sporting event, but rather related to something much bigger than just the sporting event. Here's his message announcing the university closure in full:

February 8, 2010

Good Morning,

There are certain moments in life that are transcendent and transformative and are too wonderful for words. Sunday's Super Bowl victory was such a moment. It was a victory that went far beyond football, highlights, statistics or trophies. This world championship, coupled with the election of a new mayor by an overwhelming majority, is about the progress and future of our beloved city.

This was a moment for all New Orleanians. The way this city and this team, our team, have embraced one another is unique in all the world. While most professional athletes discuss themselves and their gifts at post-game press conferences, our Saints invariably talk about their city and what its recovery has meant to them and to the nation.

This is what I believe we will be celebrating when we welcome our hometown heroes at tomorrow's parade. In addition, we will be congratulating our new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, as he leads us into the future. So in recognition of New Orleans, our recovery, our revival and the unity we displayed in one incredible weekend at the polls and on the national stage, I am going to close the university (uptown, downtown and primate center) tomorrow at 1 p.m.

This will allow all New Orleans-area Tulanians time to gather with family, friends and neighbors (are there any other categories of people in New Orleans?) and celebrate what is truly a historic moment in the long life and new life of our city. Enjoy the parade but most of all enjoy the moment. It truly is our time!

Geaux New Orleans,
Geaux Saints,
Geaux Tulane,
[Signed ... Scott]
Now maybe Scott Cowen really believes that Tuesday afternoon was a time to celebrate an "historic moment" for all kinds of things important to New Orleans. But, come on, it was done specifically on Tuesday afternoon and not on any other day, precisely because of the parade for the Saints. Face it, Cowen could have called for a holiday on Monday, which would have made more sense when you think about it, since Monday was the first school day after the Saturday election AND the Superbowl victory. The only reason to choose Tuesday was because of the Saints victory parade. Take away the Superbowl Victory parade, and all that other stuff about New Orleans wouldn't have mustered anything remotely close to a decision to shutter the university. Take away the Superbowl Victory parade, and Tuesday would have looked just like Monday. As I see it, it's a shame that, in the end, it boils down quite simply to the fact that it was a sports-related event that precipitated the closure of the university. As I said previously, this sends an absolutely bass-ackwards message to just about everyone about the importance of sports relative to the importance of education.

I still like and admire you, President Cowen; but, in my opinion, and to use a common sports metaphor, you really dropped the ball on this one.

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