The capacity of the American university to come up with great new ideas of how to improve higher education is, as the kids say, awesome.
Consider just a few of the more recent innovations:
• Hire part-time rather than full-time teachers so there is more money for amenities such as climbing walls, juice bars and state-of-the art workout facilities.
• Focus full-time faculty on their research and graduate programs so that undergraduates can get to know graduate student instructors from many foreign countries.
• Offer degree programs online (as Florida State, the University of Central Florida, the University of Florida and the University of South Florida are doing) so students can earn their degrees without ever leaving home (or their pajamas).
• Offer classes online rather than in person so there is more money for basketball and football coaches.
• Pay the coaches at universities (for example, Alabama, Duke, Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio State) astronomical salaries that are higher than those of 70 percent of their NFL and NBA counterparts — because of their contributions to the quality of education at their schools.
And now here comes the latest great new idea: Let the biggest and richest universities provide better insurance benefits and pay their athletes more than other NCAA schools. And let those athletes have agents — so they can work on their pro careers (which a negligible number of them will ever have — but all dream of) from the start.
One could, of course, go on, though such a list is by now a familiar litany. We have come to expect that this is just what universities do, if they can. And because universities are full of smart people, these must be smart things to do.
Just in case, dear reader, you are curious about what all these great innovations have to do with teaching the young men and women of this country how to think, analyze, write, create and work hard on complicated problems, let me assure you that the answer is nothing. Nothing. At. All.
The ancient Roman leaders, including such gruesome monsters as Nero, knew that they could get away with almost anything — taxes for war, bad behavior among public officials, misuse of public monies, anything — if they provided the public with free bread and circuslike entertainment (panem et circenses). Thus was the Coliseum built, and filled with cheering crowds, to watch — among other athletic contests — those between Christians and lions.
Our big universities are serving us and their students the bread and circuses of college football and basketball, and we are content to call it education.
Not a chance.
Donald R. Eastman III is president of Eckerd College, a private liberal arts college in St. Petersburg. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.