Those Dedicated Public Servant Wannabes at The Barn

It’s hardly news that big-time college athletics programs have been known to steer their recruits into less-challenging academic classes and programs. Back in the day, a lot of jocks majored in physical education, which actually made sense given the aspirations many had to wind up in coaching themselves. But even at elite institutions, there were always certain programs known to be friendly to “student-athletes” who were a bit more of the latter than the former (e.g., the Industrial Management department at Georgia Tech, for a long time the only non-science-or-engineering major available). And then there’s always been some downright cheating, viz. the class in basketball for basketball players at one of my alma maters, the University of Georgia, that got its coaches fired, or the more recent and pervasive scandal at the University of North Carolina involving no-show class offerings for athletes in the African-American Studies Department.

The latest and most depressing example of this phenomenon appears to be at Auburn University. It’s depressing to me less because it reveals a program to which athletes are being steered (presumably because it’s not very demanding) than because of the academic discipline involved. Here’s Ben Cohen with the story at the Wall Street Journal[h/t Get the Picture]:

In 2013, Auburn University’s curriculum review committee took up the case of a small, unpopular undergraduate major called public administration. After concluding that the major added very little to the school’s academic mission, the committee voted to eliminate it.

But according to internal documents and emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, the committee’s decision was ultimately overruled by top administrators after it met significant opposition from another powerful force on campus: Auburn’s athletic department.

In addition to meeting with the school’s provost to urge him to spare public administration, the documents show, top athletic officials also offered to use athletic department funds, if necessary, to help pay its professors and support staff. Gary Waters, Auburn’s senior associate athletic director for academic services, wrote in an email in January 2013 that athletics had made “similar investments in academic programs during the last few years,” although in those cases, he added, “it has not been publicized.”

In the fall semester of 2013, more than half of the roughly 100 students majoring in public administration were athletes, records show, including nearly all of the top stars on the Auburn football team, which would win the Southeastern Conference title and play in the national-championship game. “If the public administration program is eliminated, the [graduation success rate] numbers for our student-athletes will likely decline,” a December 2012 internal athletic department memo said.

Now I suppose it’s possible Auburn’s coaching staff encouraged its players to aspire to careers of public service in federal, state or local government. More likely it was a disrespected major that didn’t put a lot of mental stress on athletes required to spend a lot of time in weight rooms and on practice fields. You’d like to think a degree in public administration isn’t today’s version of the PE major.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.