How one building reveals what’s wrong with Higher Education



On the heels of its inaugural football season in the Big Ten Conference, the University of Maryland announced bold plans: The Board of Regents’ Finance Committee unanimously agreed to move forward with construction of a new building that would transform Cole Field House, an old basketball arena turned student activities center, into a “dynamic hub at the intersection of athletics, academics and research.”

Jump-starting the project is a $25-million donation from an alumnus, the Under Armour founder Kevin Plank. The “New Cole Field House” has little to do with academics and everything to do with competition and money. It is a perfect example of American higher education’s distorted incentives and misguided priorities. In their zealous pursuit of prestige, many institutions are erecting monuments to donors and buzzwords, shortchanging students and faculty in the process.

The centerpiece of the plan for the New Cole Field House is the Terrapin Performance Center, or TPC, which will include a full-size indoor football field for all-season training and workout facilities “unmatched in Division I sports.” The impetus for the TPC, according the project’s website, is Maryland’s move to the Big Ten Conference. This move, which cost the institution $31-million in a settlement with the Atlantic Coast Conference and upset many campus constituents, allowed Maryland to participate in the Big Ten’s revenue-sharing stream.

The logic appears to be that, in order to reap the full benefits of this stream, Maryland must position itself to compete. Other football programs have similar facilities, such as Ohio State’s Woody Hayes Athletic Center and Michigan State’s Skandalaris Football Center. The Terrapin Performance Center “will allow Maryland to stand proudly among [its] Big Ten colleagues” and promote its “rightful place among the most dynamic universities in the world.”

Maryland wants the money and reputation that comes with big-league athletics. And it is willing to spend large sums of money to make money.

For the past year, Maryland has not just invested in athletics. Mirroring a trend at institutions across the country, it has sought to strategically prioritize anything remotely related to innovation and entrepreneurship. The new building will host the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which the provost established in 2013 to “infuse the university with a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship across all colleges and curriculum.”

In the new building, students will take entrepreneurship courses, pitch business ideas to investors, and even sell their wares in a shared marketplace and storefront. The combination of athletics and entrepreneurship training is perhaps confusing to outsiders, but makes perfect sense to insiders. Kevin Plank, whose donation is driving the project, has for years funded entrepreneurship initiatives on campus, including a major business model competition for student start-up ventures. In one part of the building, athletes will prepare to compete on television and make the institution money. In another part of the building, students compete against one another for cash and prizes that may one day translate into donations.

The learning attached to the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is worth a closer look. Much of it is experiential in nature, and many courses to date are taught not by tenure-track faculty, but rather administrative staff and lecturers. There is only a handful of tenure-track faculty whose research specialty is entrepreneurship, so the university has relied upon adjuncts with industry experience. A growing feature of the university’s entrepreneurship education revolves around incubator spaces, where students can build and test prototype products. For some observers, this is precisely the type of de-centered, hands-on learning students—and the economy—demand.

Still, there is little doubt that tenure-track faculty are pushed aside in the cultivation of an entrepreneurial mindset. The “academics” touted on the project’s website more closely resembles wealth-creation workshops offered by industry experts. Many of the experiences do not grant credit and are part of a quasi-curriculum. Students learn to leverage institutional resources to create companies. Ideas are evaluated according to metrics like scalability and profitability.

The final spoke of the “hub” is a research center dedicated to sports medicine. Although an interdisciplinary center that aims to study traumatic brain injury and improve human performance contributes to the public good, competition and money remain key parts of the equation. The project website reports that the center will “contain more than 23,000 square feet of dedicated, revenue-generating clinical space.” The center is part of a plan called MPowering the State. As it turns out, the project is about much more than the study of concussions suffered by “amateur” athletes; it aims to translate research-grant money into additional institutional revenues and economic growth.

Supporters of the New Cole Field House likely would argue that the decrepit basketball arena sorely needs to be repurposed. This repurposing, however, entails uprooting a range of offices that have called the arena home for the past several years, including the Orientation Office, Asian-American Studies Program, President’s Commission on Women’s Affairs, Office of the Faculty Ombudsperson, a center for the study visual arts and culture of African-Americans and the African Diaspora, and a prayer space for Muslim students.

In creating a space for athletics, business creation, and grant-fundable research, the university displaces programs that are truly academic and benefit marginalized students. It’s not clear where these offices will land as they attempt to continue their work amidst gentrification. Of course, there is no indication they will be eliminated and may even be moving into better spaces. Nevertheless, moving offices and outfitting new spaces can be a time-intensive, costly endeavor for programs that receive meager resources to begin with.

Directly across from the project is the College of Education, a vestige of the land-grant university’s former commitment to the community. Although the College of Education received some new paint and furniture in the last year, its unadorned cinder-block walls and aging classrooms embody the all-too-common campus geographies of disparity.

Rather than pursuing prestige, what if the university invested heavily in becoming the pre-eminent institution for attracting and training teachers and school leaders? The fact that this proposition will strike readers as so unrealistic as to be comical foregrounds the tragic transformation of American higher education from a social institution to a platform catering to private industry, wealthy donors, and affluent boosters.

The University of Maryland is embarking on the creation of a money-making machine. It is making a statement about where its priorities lie. For many fans of Terrapins football, that statement reads: “Maryland is building a competitive program worthy of a big-time tailgate.” As an alumnus, I hear a different statement altogether: “Higher education has completely lost sight of what matters.”

Author Bio: Kevin R. McClure is two-time graduate of the University of Maryland. He is an assistant professor of higher education in the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.