I watched last night’s Orange Bowl rout, and I have to say, while it was hardly a suspenseful game, it was oddly enjoyable, in a head-shaking kind of way. I mean, my jaw dropped when Bradley tried to pick up that punt and go with it, and then when he got stripped, I just started laughing. And even without mistakes like that, Oklahoma was outplayed every step of the way. I’ll admit, as an aside, that while I certainly wasn’t rooting for U.S.C. (after Sam Walton’s grand-daughter graduated from there by buying every paper she turned in, the epithet “University of Spoiled Children” kinda stuck in my mind), I was definitely rooting against the Sooners, and I guess I got what I was hoping for.
But that isn’t really what I was wanting to talk about. UMass is Division 1AA for football, and in the midst of our recent budget cuts, there was some talk from the athletic program about spending a ridiculous sum to go Division 1A, with one of the rationales offered being that it would bring more money into the school. And, certainly, as Derek Bok and Murray Sperber point out, college athletics is a big, big busines: I’m sure the U.S.C. Trojans and the Oklahoma Sooners brought millions of dollars to their respective universities by going to the Orange Bowl.
So, with my recent focus on looking at student labor within the university as economic labor, how should we think about the labor of U.S.C. quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart? What sort of transaction does his labor constitute?
His recompense for helping to bring in millions of dollars to U.S.C. is free tuition. But the football team here certainly doesn’t bring in millions of dollars to UMass, and Liam Coen is making approximately the same amount as as Matt Leinart: free tuition. Now, one reason I emphasize ‘approximately’ is because tuitions vary, of course. But then we also get into the question of the value of that tuition: some might argue that a U.S.C. football scholarship, if you’re majoring in Computer Science, is worth considerably less that a football scholarship at Carnegie Mellon, which has a Division III football team. My point is that the scale of compensation for student labor within the university — in relation to the monetary value of that labor to the ’employer’ — varies hugely. Some might say that the scale of exploitation varies hugely.
I don’t have any answer to the football question, although I will say that I’m adamantly opposed to play-for-pay for college athletes: I mean, c’mon, you’re in school to get an education. What I’m trying to get at here, what I’m trying to untangle, is a way of understanding or characterizing the various transactions students participate in as economic beings within the context of the college or university. A tuition payment is a market-based exchange transaction, yes? How does the labor of a work-study assistant in the library, or the labor of a resident assistant in the dorms, differ in kind from the labor of a student athlete? Ought one student’s proofreading of a peer’s paper during a first-year writing class session to be considered a non-market gift transaction? To use Marxist terminology, when a student labors by cramming for an exam, we might assume that she is appropriating the value of her own surplus labor — but where, exactly, is the ‘surplus’? And is her labor part of a market-based exchange transaction, and if so, how is that exchange transaction connected to the initial transaction of a tuition fee in exchange for education? And, of course, this brings me back to my old question: how is the labor of writing a paper valued, and how is that value distributed to the participants in the transaction (student, institution, instructor), and what sort of a transaction is the writing of a paper? Market? Gift? Hell, could it be a feudal transaction?
As noted above, the shifting values of institutional context make these questions even more complicated. The other complicating factor lies in asking how different economic perspectives might understand the nature of a student’s economic activity. When we look through the lenses of exploitation and appropriation, what do we see? What do we see when we look through the lenses of supply and demand, of individual tastes and preferences?