July 26, 2021

Who are the Stars at Your University?


Janis prince innissBy Janis Prince Inniss

I will never forget the day Dr. Levine told me that Lillian Rubin was coming to teach at Queens College. I couldn’t believe that he knew her! Or that she would be teaching at my school and I could take a class with her. In terms of today’s music celebrities, he might as well have said that Rihanna, Dua Lipa, or Ariana Grande was going to grace Kissena Hall. Before that conversation, I had read Dr. Rubin’s book Intimate Strangers and marveled at what seemed to be her ability to get into people’s heads and to explain issues that, as a 22-year-old, I was beginning to notice. Even the name of the book captured my attention as I struggled to understand intimate relationships.

I don’t know whether any of the other students in her at Queens understood how privileged we were to have this professor teach us.  Although Dr. Rubin became my mentor and we became close enough for her to encourage me to call her Lillian—I could never bring myself to do so—she always remained a superstar in my eyes. Her academic career was inspiring; she wrote best-sellers, using her tools as a sociologist and a family therapist to investigate family and other relationships, and her analysis always rang true to me. She was kind and accessible, encouraging my interest in both fields. And she remained a star whose voice I might hear on the radio, and whose death would be noted in both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. This is not the lifestyle afforded most academics; most professors toil in obscurity.

I have thought about stardom and academia a lot lately. What prompts this reflection? Well, on a recent visit to Chapel Hill, I stayed at The Carolina Inn, near the University of North Carolina. On our last day, as I sat on the hotel patio having lunch with my spouse, I noticed that the room next to us was being readied for some event. I peered in and recognized a woman who had driven up as we sat on the hotel porch earlier, telling the valet attendant that she is normally allowed to park up front, rather than in the parking lot.

With little else to hold my attention as we waited for our food, I began to pay closer attention to the room. By this point, about a dozen tables and chairs were set up in a square, and each seat had a place card. I decided that the woman was setting up a luncheon for university personnel.  

With further scrutiny, I could read some of the place cards and guessed what might be taking place. Earlier in the week, I had observed what seemed to be a lacrosse camp on a university field; they were all white. A few days later, I saw Black teenage boys at what seemed to be a football camp on a field. Race and gender—and perhaps class dynamics leapt out at me. With this information, I decided that the room was being readied for a football recruit.

I am sure that I am right! Here’s why: Along came a young Black man and what appeared to be his family—further guessing says he was accompanied by his mother, grandmother, two uncles, a girlfriend, a baby, and a little boy. The only white person in the room with them was a white woman, at the head of the table, who I speculate was a university liaison. So far, this is circumstantial evidence. However, after lunch, as we sat on the patio and watched the group depart, I got a fuller picture and saw who had joined the lunch. Escorting the Black family away from the hotel were three men (two Black and one white) on the UNC football coaching staff! I confirmed this with a look at a university webpage. I almost missed the biggest clue though: Mack Brown was there too! He was among the last to come out of the hotel and based on his appearance (he is an older white man) I thought he might be the head coach.  My husband recognized the head coach immediately!  I’m not into football but even I know Mack Brown’s name! And here he was at this luncheon.

It was such a vivid example of how important football is to so many universities—a star coach and others on his staff make time to wine and dine a prospective student athlete. I tried to imagine the intellectual version of this. Are students with the highest GPAs treated in similar fashion? I tried to imagine what star intellectual powers such students might be able to meet. Do universities ask faculty with a track record like Lillian Rubin to help impress prospective students? And how many of us can identify academic superstars when we see them? Are there any “star” faculty at your university? Do you think they are trotted out to impress students? What do our answers to these questions tell us about societal values?

This is an interesting time to consider the prominence of college sports given the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s rules that prohibit education related benefits for student athletes. Mack Brown and his coaching staff are not dining with every player. Coaches woo players that will help them win—and their universities make money. As I watched everyone depart that day, I wondered whether there had been any time devoted to a serious discussion about the young man’s academic future.

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