Grambling State as football in dialectic

The corporate enclosure of American academia continues apace. Some current events have brought this into sharper focus, both revolving around the mania for assessment. A third news story offers us hope in the guise of some unlikely role models.

Does anything embody neoliberalism in education to a greater degree than standardized testing? While I’m not expert enough to proclaim a starting point for neoliberalism (the late, great Neil Smith took a stab at it) and can remember well sitting through ITBS all the way back in 1984 Texas, we can acknowledge No Child Left Behind as a symbolic and significant policy event shaping the contemporary education scene. NCLB was supposed to be the centerpiece of Bush’s promised “compassionate conservativism” and, indeed, it does have a sensible conservative principle at its core. Recipients of public monies ought to be held accountable such that resources flow to more effective programming.

Anyone shepherding their children through public K-12 education knows what this has meant in practice. Stress and anxiety imposed on young bodies by high stakes testing. Weeks and weeks of teaching to the test. Loss of teacher’s instructional freedom. Disciplining young bodies into docility before computer monitors, diligently clicking away with a mouse for hours. Hours for a little kid to take these tests ya’ll.

Hey! I’ve got a great idea! Let’s bring standardized testing to higher education and use student performance on the test to assess faculty. A recent article in the Chronicle, “States Demand That Colleges Show How Well Their Students Learn” 10/28/13 (behind paywall but worth reading if you have access), describes just such a movement.

In Missouri student performance on an ETS brand test called “Proficiency Profile” is being used as a method for distributing a portion of state support to the schools.

Many professors there had long wondered why the university bothered with the expense and logistics of administering the test, says Joel D. Benson, a professor of history and president of the Faculty Senate. “The only thing that we were sort of in opposition to,” he says, “was why are we going through all this if it isn’t going to mean anything?”

Could it be that Administration needs to periodically justify its existence to the state legislature?


The Chronicle reports that as a 60% of Northwest Missouri State’s scored above the median the state chose to award the school $186,000. According to Google that enrollment at NW-Mo-State is 6,831 so that comes to an extra $27 per student. Yay! Table scraps!

Meanwhile, in Indiana (home to recent dust-up over Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”) I learned about state policy towards research at regional institutions via a conversation on the Facebook page for The Professor is In on 10/29/13. The Indiana Commission on Higher Education 2010 policy states that at regional campuses scholarly activity ought to be focused on teaching and that research should be related to local and regional needs.

Sponsored, peer-reviewed research is incentivized through the State’s budget formula at those Indiana institutions with Carnegie classifications of “high” or “very high” research activity. Research activity at the Regional Campuses will not be incentivized in the State’s budget formula.

That would be a hell of a position to be put in for an anthropologist! Especially a new hire. The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel reports that legislative committee is looking into increasing the autonomy of some regional schools, but of course IU and Purdue aren’t going to like that. The size of the pie is not going to grow, just the number of seats at the table.

It will be interesting to see if more states take an interest in curbing faculty research at non-R1 schools.

This news is balanced by a story from Louisiana you might have missed if you are not a sports fan. In a nutshell the story is this, the football team at Grambling went on strike. Mold grew in their locker room, their uniforms were not getting laundered, unsanitary conditions were promoting staph infection, the boys were rationing nutritional supplements among themselves and taking the bus for long-distance road games instead of flying. Seventeen hours one-way for a game!

And so they refused to play. The player boycott forced the cancellation of a game at Jackson State University (now JSU wants to sue Grambling for millions due to lost revenue). NPR’s African-American themed news program Tell Me More picked up the story.

The football program at Grambling State University is one of storied tradition and commands the respect of fans everywhere. It is the Notre Dame of historically black colleges and universities, as the NPR commentator put it. I know it from the Bayou Classic, part of my family’s Thanksgiving Day ritual, and one of the few games where the television cameras stay on for the marching band’s performance. The community and corporate sponsors have since rallied around the beloved team and Bobby Jindal earned some well deserved egg on his tie for cutting the school’s funding.

Will HBCU’s survive the neoliberal onslaught? Well, it doesn’t look good. But we should look to this football team as role models because this is what it could look like when TA’s walk off the job.

The anthropologist as ethical skeptic might think, “People love football. No wonder corporate America came to the rescue! There’s money to be made.” And yeah, that’s part of it. The other part of is that this was something that directly affected students. It was the students who took action and protested.

When we think of how to resist neoliberalism in education going forward we ought to recognize that it is going to take a broad coalition. We’ll need to bring the students with us, football players and cheerleaders too.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

One thought on “Grambling State as football in dialectic

  1. Matt, I direct you to the cover story of the most recent East Bay Express ( absolutely relevant to the above discussion of neoliberal logics, the corporate enclosure of the university, and the resistance of (and to) Black students at a public university struggling under the weight of state funding cuts.

    The Express article confirms a pattern I’ve been pointing out for years (which many White anthropologists have been in willful denial of, including here at Savage Minds such that Chris Kelty allowed Paul Rabinow to say all is fine in the Berkeley Anthropology department, while censoring proof of public cyberbullying that showed that all is not fine and illustrated the hostile climate and lack of respect discussed in the Express article). Of course, because ego trumps ethics, no apology will be forthcoming, however deserved.

    So yes, what you say about resistance is true: problems that adversely affect the vast majority of students will be responded to very differently than problems that only effect a few.

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