By now, the administration has made it clear that it has to cut something. Several departments – classics and American studies, for example – have been warned that they are on a knife’s edge and may soon face termination. Barring budgetary “necessity” scare-tactics, i.e. under normal financial circumstances, I think most students can agree that it would be nothing short of tragic to lose any single one of these crucial academic programs. How can one convincingly claim to provide a thorough and well-rounded liberal arts education, yet lack a Classics program? How can Brandeis, which once stood at the head of the pack in the field of American studies (“Olin-Sang Center for American Civilization” is a vestige of this past), rid itself of that distinction?
Yes, this is a time of financial hardship, in which difficult – even desperate – budget decisions are essentially inevitable. Yes, other belt-tightening strategies are being pursued in order to reduce the likelihood that these academic treasures be tossed into the garbage as if they were nothing.
But has everything really been considered?
Let me throw an idea out there that some might consider impractical, perhaps even batshit insane. GET RID OF ATHLETICS.
Although it would be nice to hold onto them, what do our sports teams really bring to the table that makes them absolutely essential even in times of dire finances – so much so that academic programs have to be cut in order to sustain them? When explaining the benefit of athletics, defenders often couch their arguments in terms of community-building and school spirit. This is an empty tautology that lacks a shred of evidence. I don’t think any serious person would argue that our sports teams inspire the kind of pride that a real community demands. How many people even follow Brandeis athletics? How well-attended are our basketball games? Far from building a common identity on campus, the athletics program creates its own sealed-off social group within the university, mostly cut off from the rest of the student body. (To be sure, athletes themselves cannot be blamed for this; rather, it’s in the very nature of the athletics program, in that a massive time commitment to their sports draws them away from the campus, thrusts an outside identity upon them, and in every sense puts them at a remove from their fellow students).
Whatever sense of identity and pride Brandeis has is irrelevant to how well the Judges perform. Instead, the bedrock on which any university of quality ought to rest is academic excellence, and I, for one, take immense pride in the knowledge that Brandeis succeeds in this regard. Surely some would argue that Brandeis will attract fewer applicants without an athletics program. I answer that when Brandeis trims its academics, it will necessarily become far less attractive – in fact, quite repellent – to serious students who value inquiry, knowledge, and culture. These core elements constitute the critical purpose and raison d’etre of a liberal arts institution, especially in an economized, efficiency-obsessed society.
By all means, preserve a weight room, have exercise machines, keep the P.E. program. Fitness is not something that should be ignored! Furthermore, intramural sports are a good idea – in fact, I think they can often contribute to a sense of community on campus. But it’s the teams that we should be focusing on.
With academics on the chopping block, questioning our athletics budget should not be taboo. We should inquire: How much money goes into paying for transportation, hotel rooms, coaches, equipment, athletic scholarships? The answer is: a hell of a lot!
And that’s a hell of a lot of money that isn’t going to the features that make a liberal arts institution what it’s supposed to be. What sane administrator could honestly make the study of Plato an endeavor entirely contingent on financial necessity – in order to save the athletics program?
Hard times call for bold decisions. It seems that rather than accept this fact, Brandeis is resigning itself to a rapid and unmistakable decline into a bleak future in which its academic status will match a well-established reputation for athletic mediocrity.