The True Varsity Blues

The university admissions scandal (#varsityblues) is one of those watershed moments that has me looking back over life and doing some rewriting. My autobiographical fiction books have some thoughts about ‘the death of universities’ in America, and some of those anecdotes come to mind. People have been saying that cheating is nothing new or it’s always been like this, but really it hasn’t, at least not to this degree.

Life-story rewrites tend to be long and this blog post is no exception. It also trends toward over-dramatic at the end; I went where the writing took me.

I remember applying to Northern Arizona University (NAU) way back in 1988. It’s not an elite school by any means. It’s the little sister to the bigger Arizona universities: U of A and ASU. Still, I was thrilled to be accepted to the closest school to Grand Canyon. A family credit union seemed more than happy to give me a loan, and I drove my little Mitsubishi pickup truck from Maryland to Flagstaff with my stuff.

I remember my truck, just 2 years old, was one of the nicer vehicles on campus. Many of my friends and other students had older models, hand-me-downs from their parents, and apartment complexes near campus had warnings about removing junkers or cars on blocks that took up parking spaces. I guess my little golden truck made me a rich kid in some people’s eyes.

I graduated and returned to work at NAU about a decade later, and I remember one day noticing how there were fewer cars of ‘working class’ people on campus. The parking lot across from the Cline Library was full of vehicles of well-t0-do folks—lots of recent model year Toyotas, Fords, and even Audis and Mercedes. This was my first clue that universities in America were changing.

My next clue was the attitude of teachers and students. I remember one guy in a news announcing class had a noticeable lisp. I’m not talking a Michael Strahan-type lisp where you can respect the effort. This guy’s lisp was enough to elicit the giggles, and funnier still he had a body type like John Candy. Every time he came on set to do the news, I had to leave the studio and go into the control room for fear I might get the giggles. And invariably when giggles broke out in the studio among students waiting their turn, the professor admonished the amassed wannabes to stifle it. I always wanted to tell this guy he was missing his calling trying to be a news anchor; he should become a comedian, but instead he got extra time to improve his takes. When the issue of unfairness got raised, we learned that the lisper was the son of a well-known Phoenix news anchor who, no doubt, donated to the university.

Another guy wanted to be a sports announcer. One day during a credit roll after the news, he dropped his pants and mooned the camera. We were live on a Flagstaff cable channel, and his moon was up for ten seconds or so before someone switched to black. The guy was kicked out of the class—for a week—but he was allowed back in through some arrangement with his parents. We ended up changing the news program from live-on-cable to live-to-tape, changing the very nature of what we were doing. Later, the live newscast was dropped for a trendy magazine-style show, robbing more serious students of a chance to hone their skills.

Life moves on, and I left NAU for a second time. Just like the first time, I sought out American University (AU). When I graduated NAU in 1990 (magna cum laude) I applied to one graduate program: Master of Arts from the AU School of Communication. It was a competitive masters, and AU was considered a second-tier elite school (if there is such a thing). They have about a 35 percent acceptance rate, and the program I was in only graduated the top 25 percent of applicants. Still, I made it through, so after leaving employment at NAU all those years later I sought out the services of the AU Career Center.

On reviewing my resume, a counselor with 25 years experience told me that I should put everything and anything related to my masters area of study on my resume, even if I had no real world experience with it. I said I was uncomfortable with that, and she replied that other graduates are doing that and they will get the job over me. I did add some things that I always wanted to do, but I never again got good jobs in the television field. My heart wasn’t into the lying. These days I can’t watch American news programs anymore. The anchors are mostly hacks and the technical aspects are often sophomoric.

There are other stories about the decline of academia in America. It might sound like a bunch of woe-is-me crapola. When I offered to lead a screenwriters group for a meetup some years ago, a guy trolled me on a forum saying I only had a masters because my rich liberal-elitist parents paid for it. My parents were Roman Catholic conservatives, and my dad died when I was 17; even to this day among those I grew up with, ideas of mental frailty or illness seem to be touted more than my education.

More recently I had a masters student offer me “money and really good massages” if I helped them defraud a university with my writing skills. (I declined.) I applied to work with a company called Academic Writers Online, and it seemed like they wanted to initiate me into scamming universities on behalf of students—no job there for me.

The point is (I hate that saying, but feel I have to use it here after so much personal crap) that the attitudes of Americans towards a university education have changed. Maybe there have always been people who blew their way through with money or charm or beauty tips, but in the past there came a time to be serious or you wouldn’t make it. Going to university forced me to party less, and graduate school was too intense to spend any time partying while school was in session. Is this true anymore?

We’ve got American planes falling from the sky, and Olivia Jade lost her endorsement deals. Somehow our media makes these things seem equivalent. We keep looking backwards like we lost something, and we did. We lost looking forward and trying to make ourselves better people and the world a better place.

Maybe worst of all, I seem to have become some kind of ethical compass. This is so not me; I’d rather be out hiking and not caring where the world is headed, but it feels like someone has to hold the heart.

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