Parts and Wholes: Who Stands for Temple?
Temple has been making headlines lately, and not in the way we would like. I refer, of course, to the furor over the decision last December to cut seven varsity sports. This has led to a wave of criticism, including a lengthy takedown in The New York Times. Just last week, we were informed that the NCAA has begun an inquiry into whether Temple is in violation of the gender-equity rules set forth by Title IX—a perverse outcome given that one of the justifications for the cuts is to bring us into Title IX compliance. There is much to be said about this and other aspects of this decision, including the sadly-predictable but still-upsetting exclusion of faculty from the deliberations. And much gets said and said well by Michael Sachs in his column. Like him, I hope that our leaders learn something from their mistakes here; we are, after all, an educational institution.
But it is our status as an educational institution that makes me want to take a step back and ask why, exactly, this decision has generated so much news. There is plenty to debate about the proper role of athletics at Temple, and I’m happy for The Herald to serve a site of those debates, just as it has for decades. Right now, though, I want to pose some broader questions that naturally occur to an English professor like me, concerned as I am with how x stands for y. I want to ask about how parts stand for wholes—the literary-critical term is synecdoche. How does one group of students stand for the whole of Temple? And what follows from the synecdoches we select? We have been talking an awful lot about a mere 158 students out of a student body of nearly 38000, along with a handful of employees out of thousands and a few million dollars in an annual budget of $1 billion. This is a churlish way to put things, to be sure. These affected student-athletes and their coaches have poured countless hours into their sports, not just for their own sake but for the values they instill beyond the playing-field. They have represented Temple with great distinction, and losing them is painful. What these students bring to Temple intellectually, to cite yet another instance that should lay to rest the “dumb jock” stereotype, is brought home by this eloquent piece by a member of the baseball team. Still, the many virtues of these students do not answer the question of what is revealed by the intense focus on them.
Three propositions, then, about synecdoches and students. First, as the brilliant theorist Kenneth Burke pointed out, with synecdoche comes the danger of reductiveness.1 In thinking about our students in their various identities, we have to be aware of what might be lost when we imagine them as representative of the whole. We also need to help our administration see the diversity of our student body with proper clarity and nuance. For instance, if student-athletes stand in for Temple as a whole, what, then, about students with disabilities? What about Honors students? What might be revealed about Temple’s make-up and mission by the overlaps as well as the differences among these three groups? Temple’s decision to adopt a new set of policies for students with disabilities—and their profound implications for our teaching—are discussed in my interview with Tim O’Rourke and Paul Paire. This approach tends to treat these students separately, and there are ethical and legal warrants for doing so. But efforts to make our teaching more accessible has the potential to benefit all students, as made clear by Ann Keefer’s essay on Universal Design for Learning makes clear. Universal Design also has the salutary effect of questioning any absolute division between students with disabilities and those without. As for Honors Students (some of whom are almost certainly students with disabilities), Val Peridier’s columns about the new Freshman Scholar Summer Stipends and the Honors Program show that these students are on the rise, both in terms of their test scores and their numbers. They are, in other words being emphasized as models of the Temple student body.
This leads to a second, more practical point about synecdoche and students: Decisions about resources flow from synecdochal choices. I think about who might be disadvantaged by the increase in Honors students, despite the many benefits they bring. As Dean Anderson pointed out in my interview last issue, “merit,” which all too often means SAT scores, correlates strongly with socioeconomic status. So if our undergraduate enrollment remains flat, as President Theobald has projected for the next decade, more Honors students will likely mean fewer slots for those we have historically served through our Conwellian mission, though there may be some happy overlap between these two groups. And given the new financial investment in Honors students, that smaller pool of accepted students from under-represented backgrounds may find less financial aid to make it possible for them to attend Temple, although the President’s new Fly in Four Program may mitigate this effect.
Finally, as Pamela Barnett ably points out, it will remain our duty and privilege to teach all of these students. No one expects or wants the administration to turn admissions over to us. Still, the axing of sports teams sounds a cautionary note about excluding faculty from discussions and decisions about the shape of Temple’s student body. So what role will we on the faculty play in discussions around the identity and identities of Temple’s student body? To answer that question properly, we will have to stand for Temple in a different way, to defend our vision of what Temple students are and should be. That way, we will be more confident in the integrity of part and whole when we imagine this or that group of students standing for Temple. •