Austin American-Statesman 09/13/2013 Palaima: If Mack Brown Were On the Tenure Track


Palaima: If Mack Brown were on the tenure track

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 12:55 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013  Print Edition September 13, 2013

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

The big questions in Austin right now are what grade do we give Mack Brown for his performance as head coach of the University of Texas football team, and who gives him his grade?

Sportswriters are giving out C’s, D’ and F’s for play on the field. Here let me propose that it would be much better if decisions about coaches, expenditures, admissions and academic standards were made with a wider range of voices, perspectives and values.

Athletics decision-making has long operated in a silo. Regents, a sports-enthusiast president, other insiders and a few carefully chosen and easily outvoted outsiders decide on hiring and firing and set spending priorities in a self-operating sports enterprise.

What if decision-making in athletics at UT was modeled on the university’s system for promotion and tenure ? The promotion and tenure system obtains broad perspectives from inside and outside the university. It involves the tenured faculty and university administration at many levels of authority. It virtually eliminates decisions based on cronyism, except at the highest levels, where such decisions are at least transparent. It allows at every stage for fact-finding and debate.

Before you say it just can’t work, hear me out. And imagine your own analogies to UT big-time sports.

Assistant professors apply for tenure and promotion generally in their sixth active year at the university. During their first five years, committees and chairpersons or directors within their units have assessed their annual reports and given them specific advice on how to improve in the year ahead.

In the promotion and tenure year, full dossiers relating to research, teaching and service are compiled and closely reviewed. Five or more evaluations of research are sought from distinguished scholars worldwide, chosen to be knowledgeable about a candidate’s areas of specialization but unbiased. Long gone are the days, for the most part, of the good-old-boy system, when going to the finest schools and knowing the right people assured tenure.

Chairpersons or directors and committees of tenured professors judge each case separately within units. Everyone knows the stakes are high for the candidates and for the future of their units. Budgets are tight. Investing in the right person is crucial.

The two departmental decisions are scrutinized by a college-wide committee of professors and by the dean within each college. Their two college-level decisions then go to the provost and president. Not much gets missed or overlooked, but appeal safeguards are in place in case the process is flawed.

We complain about decision-making by large committees. Yet UT has made real progress every 25 years because of broad-based committees like the Commission of 125. In the promotion and tenure process, stacking committees upon committees and including the independent opinions of chairpersons, program directors and deans really does work.

It was recently reported to professors that the prevailing philosophy in the provost’s and president’s offices is that UT is not in the business of awarding tenure and promotion to B+ professors. We were also told that research productivity is the bottom line. Mentoring, advising, award-winning teaching, university, professional and community service won’t get assistant professors tenure if they have not gotten an A in research now and for the predictable future.

These are hard standards. I have seen them used. The assistant professors who received the Texas Exes Jean Holloway Teaching Award the year before and after I received it in 2004 were denied tenure. One was a brilliant linguist in Germanic Studies, the other a government professor.

Imagine a similar process and standards applied to Mack Brown. We would discount academic matters like six-year graduation rates of players and the heavy use of tutors. We would discount as outreach service his fundraising and recruiting skills and Longhorn Network appearances. The bottom line would be productivity on game days.

What grade would a broad-based system of evaluators outside the sports silo give a coach who recruits A+ athletes and coaches them in A++ facilities to play against mostly B and lower-grade teams? He chooses his own assistants who are paid A+ salaries.

Right now the problem is defense. But in 2008, 2009, 2010 under Will Muschamp, then-anointed successor to Brown, the Longhorns had the top defense in the Big 12.

The silo did not offer tenure to A+ Muschamp. Instead, they gave a $2 million raise to Brown, who has only coached two teams in his entire career to conference titles.

Would a promotion and tenure-style committee make and stand by the same decision?

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

I recommend you vote for reality

Posted: 12:00 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012

Austin American-Statesman print edition October 31, 2012

Palaima: I recommend you vote for reality

By Tom Palaima,  Regular Contributor

Like many other Americans, I have already cast my votes in the local, state and national elections at an early voting center. My parents worked at polling stations when I was growing up outside Cleveland, Ohio. The working-class sons and daughters of immigrant Americans took the right to vote seriously. They knew how much was at stake for them in elections at all levels.

We are lucky that simple in-person early voting is available in Texas. It isn’t everywhere, although it seems like a no-brainer. As Dr. Victoria DeFrancesco at the LBJ School of the University of Texas at Austin puts it, “the issue of insuring early voting and/or mail-in voting is of fundamental importance to ensuring the right to vote.”

Many Americans, rich and poor, cannot be sure of voting on election day because of the jobs they hold or their family and personal obligations. Yet 18 states withhold from their citizens the simple insurance of a basic right.

In Florida, where the bogeymen of hanging chads, broken voting machines and incorrect voter registration lists still haunt citizens, early voting days have been reduced from 14 to 8 and the freest day for the working poor to vote early, a final Sunday, has been eliminated. Understandably then, large crowds of voters have been reported at early voting centers. The early voting location at UT Austin’s Flawn Academic Center has been bustling all week.

I cast my vote early for another reason, so that I would not be tempted to watch, read or listen to any more campaign advertisements or what passes for analysis of candidates and their positions on cable news networks.

Do so and you will be exposed to two viruses that have invaded our body politic, educational systems and news organizations and our very lives, the spin and brand viruses. The chief symptom of infection is our willingness to be satisfied with pretenses rather than realities, what we are told rather than what we know in our hearts.

Let’s look at high-profile sports, where, as Tom Boswell argued 30 years ago in his book How Life Imitates the World Series, we can behold what we value or tolerate as a society.

The two biggest sports stories right now in Austin, besides the sizably publicly funded Formula One circus, underscore what is wrong with public figures who cast blame on others, debates that focus on image control, and campaigns that turn on how much money candidates can raise for advertising. They also make clear that higher education is not a hospital to cure these ills, but a laboratory now to breed and perpetuate them.

The first story is the doping scandal that has cost Lance Armstrong his Tour de France titles and his sponsorship income. The second is the bargain-basement record of the UT Longhorns football team under penthouse-salaried head coach Mack Brown. Both stories are clear-cut instances of finally detecting fire where smoke has long been seen and smelled.

Yet about Armstrong’s systematic, long-term unethical behavior and coercion of others to cover it up, we are told by UT advertising professor Neal Burns that Armstrong should rebuild his personal brand, “essentially to disappear for some time,” then come back and “really work on again creating a positive image of himself.” A marketing professor at the Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania who researches “moral decoupling” by consumers concurs. Armstrong can survive by exploiting our “psychological wiggle room.”

Meanwhile, on Mack Brown, whose astronomical salary is supported by revenues from the Longhorn Network (LHN), blames the dismal performance of his teams in the three years since he received a $2 million raise on his having to spend three hours per week, plus travel time, taping interviews for LHN. His exercise in blatantly self-serving spin and in pointing fingers at the goose that lays his golden eggs has drawn wry observations from national sports commentators.

UT safety Kenneth Vaccaro may have identified an antidote, advising that the players “forget about all the stuff that is distracting at Texas, the Longhorn Network, all the fans, all the glory, all the Nike, and get back to just playing football, because that is all that really matters … .”

I hope Mr. Vaccaro graduates and runs for local public office. I will cast an early vote for him. He wants to live in a real world with simple and sound values. Don’t you, too?