Monday, May 13, 2013

Calculus for Jocks

In 1983, I taught my first course. The teaching assistants called it “Calculus for Poets”, but the incident I remember is about a basketball player. It gave me a glimpse into the mindset of college athletics departments in the US, and it cemented my opinion that competitive sports do not belong on campus.

I had come to the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University a year earlier. Being on a computer-science research fellowship, I did not teach that first year. After switching into the mathematics department, I was a teaching assistant for one year, and I was assigned the Calculus undergraduate course.

Near the end of the first term, the basketball coach came, unannounced, to my (shared) office. He explained that this student athlete, while not a star player, was very important to the team. If the student failed calculus, his Grade Point Average (GPA) would be too low to continue on the team. This would surely hurt the team, and he needed my help.

The coach promised to work with the student in the second term and make up for the failed first term if I would just give him a passing grade now. According to the coach, this wasn't really dishonest. After all, this was calculus not history: When you fail a term of history, you have not learned what happened in a particular era, and you cannot make it up without taking that term over again. However, if you succeed in the second term of calculus after failing the first term, you really have made up your lack of knowledge of the first term, because you could not succeed in the second term without making up the knowledge you missed in the failed first term. So, I should let him pass now in anticipation of second-term success.

I had been in the US long enough to have heard about the power of coaches on campuses, and I told him I would think about it. I immediately walked over to the office of the faculty member overseeing the course. He was not available, but I described the incident to his secretary, and I asked to schedule an appointment. The appointment never materialized. Instead, I received a short note to handle the situation as I saw fit.

I felt badly about being brushed off like that. With the passing of time, it feels even stranger than it did at the time. The Courant Institute was an extremely social place. Graduate students and faculty mingled in the 13th floor lounge every day for coffee breaks and lunch. Courant faculty took their graduate students seriously, and I do not remember any other incident where a faculty member was dismissive of my concerns. Yet, in this case, a faculty member refused to examine a matter that could easily have mushroomed into something serious. In retrospect, I suspect the supervising faculty member may have been affiliated with the School of Arts and Sciences and not the Courant Institute. This would explain why I do not remember his name or face and why I have no recollection of ever meeting him, even for an orientation session.

I had to deal with the coach on my own. After another meeting, I did not give the student a passing grade, but I acquiesced to the next request from the coach. I let the student drop the course. NYU’s rules allowed for late drops, provided they were approved by the instructor. By dropping the course, the student barely satisfied the GPA requirement. Unfortunately for the team and fortunately for the student, his grades did not satisfy the parental requirement. After seeing his son’s results, the student's father stepped in. He pressured his son to stop playing basketball and start studying. The student newspaper lamented this turn of events.

This was a small incident. Many much worse incidents occur every day on every campus. Yet, NYU basketball was, and remains, a small-time program (NCAA Division III). In 2010, the Wall Street Journal thought NYU is neglecting its basketball program and should raise more money for it. A student athlete on this team, no matter how good a player, has absolutely no prospects to play professionally after college. Yet, this coach thought it totally justified to sacrifice the player's education for a few team wins.

I can only imagine what happens at a university that participates in NCAA Division I, where top players have more realistic hopes for a pot of gold at the end of their college career. Does that justify a fraudulent degree? I can only imagine how the coach of such a team deals with lowly teaching assistants, instructors, and assistant professors. His multi-million dollar paycheck, which far exceeds the paycheck of the university’s president, depends on a winning record. Given where his incentives are, how much does that coach care about his or her players and their education?

One of my fellow teaching assistants explained the system at his alma mater, a top research university in NCAA Division I. On the books, athletes took identical courses with identical numbers and the same number of credits. Somehow, they would be enrolled in special sections held at times and in locations that fit the athletes’ schedules. These sections were not listed in the catalog and unavailable to regular students. Were those sections just as hard? Were they graded on an athlete's curve? No one knew, not even the athletes. This old rumor may carry no weight as evidence, but it shows how easy it is to fix things. With millions of dollars on the line, do you trust that everyone will act ethically all the time?

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