In his weekly “Stories I’d Like to See” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
1. Hoop academics:
What’s one year of classes at the University of Kentucky really like for basketball stars?
Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by Taylor Branch’s fabulous NCAA article in the Atlantic last fall titled “The Shame of College Sports” and by Joe Nocera’s compelling Op-Ed columns in The New York Times arguing that the NCAA is all about money and nothing about education. And I admit I’m drafting this after watching the feel-good NCAA ads profiling the teams’ scholar-athletes during the March basketball tournament. But now that the Final Four have come and gone and we know that all five starters on the University of Kentucky’s winning team are quitting to join the NBA after just one or two years at school, I’m wondering what a reporter will find if he or she digs into the education these freshman and sophomores actually received.
What courses did they take? How rigorous were they? What do the players’ professors and fellow students have to say about their participation in class? Did the players do the work? Did they lag or excel?
How many hours did departing superstar freshman Anthony Davis actually spend in class in his first and only year at college? What papers did he write? What tests did he take? If he and others were serious students who got a real college education, however abbreviated, that would puncture a stereotype, and one definition of a good story is that it surprises people. If he or others on the team were completely divorced from anything approaching academics—perhaps by taking comically unacademic classes or rarely showing up, or both, or not going to class altogether once the season ended—that would add more indelible specifics to what Branch and Nocera have been writing about.
2. GSA: Beyond the Vegas boondoggle
I’ve been thinking about the hilarious, or maddening, story that broke last week about 300 employees from the federal General Services Administration spending more than $800,000 of taxpayer money on a “conference” at a plush resort near Las Vegas. The details, as disclosed by the GSA’s inspector general [PDF], included gourmet banquets, a $3,200 mind reader, $44-per-person breakfasts and $75,000 spent on a training exercise to build a bicycle. There was also a $136,000 tab for travel and meals just to conduct “dry run” planning sessions at the Nevada resort. The impact of all this was amplified by the inspector general giving a congressional committee a spoof video, recorded during the event, that was then released to the press
All great stuff, but I think the press may be missing the forest for the trees by not following up with more important questions.
Buried in the inspector general’s report is the simple statement that this biannual conference of GSA employees from four different GSA regions in the West had been going on for years. Its stated purpose, according to the inspector general, is to offer “training in job skills; an exchange of ideas between ‘higher-ups’ in the four regions; and a combination of those things.” Huh?
Anyone who goes to conferences like these knows that most are fun getaways whose only work-related purpose is usually for the participants to network their way into better jobs. So why, when our government is broke, do we pay for these “conferences”? Suppose the conference had only cost $200,000 or $300,000, which, when you tally up the inspector general’s list of overpayments, seems what the total should have been? Why would we routinely spend all that money, not to mention waste all that employee time?
So someone ought to scan all the federal agency press releases for, say, the last three months and tally up the number of “conferences,” “training sessions,” or “seminars” that were held. Then give us a sampling of the agendas and estimate the total costs. Then, go find the conferences sponsored by others that boatloads of government officials from all departments attend—on our dime. (I’m on the Department of Homeland Security press release list, and I bet I see at least one such event a week listed just for that department, including one in Miami Beach on “Online Dating” that I mentioned in my January 24 column.)