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American Democracy Eroding from within

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In his signature style, our guest author summarizes the many issues and challenges faced by our American democracy with a focus on the sports-money problem in higher education. 
By Frank G. Splitt, 02-27-18
TODAY'S middle and lower-class Americans see affluent individuals and large corporations accumulating ever more wealth as they wield more power and face fewer regulations while the #MeToo movement has exposed the significant impact of male power over women in the workplace. On the other hand, millions of struggling Americans must reduce their already modest standards of living to survive with the escalating cost of healthcare.

Today’s Americans also want news, however, the real news business is suffering, the victim of the dependence on and almost insatiable appetite for social media of all too many citizens on ‘news’ from Google and Facebook. Both organizations have been and still are susceptible to trolling—foreigners sowing discord on the internet via fake news aimed at confusing and dividing Americans. In the absence of real news businesses, wild rumors and conspiracy theories can abound at the local and national level. 

Adding to the divisions among Americans are vexing issues surrounding nuclear weapons, gun violence & control, abortion, immigration, race & civil rights, climate change, the environment, a failing K-12 school system, and the opioid crisis. Radically polarized views and apocalyptic positions on these issues rule the day while a dysfunctional government and the lack of visionary leadership adds to the morass. 

It is of interest that Time magazine commissioned veteran conflict photographer James Nachtwey to document the opioid crisis over the past year through the people living it every day.[1] The entire issue was devoted to ,"The Opioid Diaries," a riveting photo-story of the worst addiction epidemic in U.S. history—a representative national emergency demanding our urgent attention. 

All of this presents a not too pretty a picture of life in America’s democracy that appears to be eroding from within.  As we will see, that's not all. There exists still another pernicious problem facing America; it’s in higher education.

To begin, I found it more than ironic that the USPS delivered the "opioid issue” of Time on the same day that I received the February 23. 2018, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education featuring the cover story, "Unrivaled Power."[2] The story takes the reader inside Auburn University's secret effort to advance and athletic-friendly curriculum. It tells the now all too familiar story of how colleges and universities, supporting big-time football and men's basketball programs, seek fame and fortune by corrupting their academic integrity so as to field competitive teams in what have become professionalized venues—conferences, tournaments, and the like. 

What was striking about the Auburn story is that the institution was subjected to the scrutiny of similar violations in the mid-2000s. As a consequence, Dr. James Gundlach, an Emeritus Professor of Sociology, was the recipient of The Drake Group's 2008 Robert Maynard Hutchins Award, recognized for exposing systemic academic improprieties at Auburn and standing up for academic integrity while the focus of vitriol  by Auburn fans, faculty and the administration, 
The attention-grabbing Auburn story followed a recent surge of other stories, each with revealing headlines, related to cheating and corruption in college sports, to wit: stories by Christian Smith,[4] Paul Campos,[5]  Eric Kelderman,[6] and Bonestee & Hobson[7]  When taken together, these stories reveal a troubling money-addictive situation involving an obsession with sports success and its tight relationship with fundraising, a situation that generally leads to cheating and academic corruption.[8] Again we see a compelling demand for our attention.

School administrators and governing boards usually share these sports-success obsessions. Sad to say, for all intents and purposes, school presidents and their governing boards have made a Faustian bargain to gain and retain their prestigious positions. For example, they look the other way when it comes to the negative impact of sports programs on academic integrity so long as the programs contribute to their schools fame and fortune. Hypocrisy abounds. Sadly, wealthy governing board members usually possess few discernible qualifications for overseeing large research universities beyond their ability to make huge donations to the schools.

The scandal at Auburn is just the latest in a veritable litany of schools with sports-related scandals. Here are just a few of the schools: Michigan State University, Baylor University, Notre Dame University, the University of Florida, and the University of North Carolina. Noteworthy is the fact that the cheating scandal at North Carolina was the subject of a detailed analysis in a recent book.[9] These scandals provide a cautionary tale for the many institutions that resemble these schools both on and off the playing field.

In view of the discord and sharp divisions on the issues within the American public and within its government, as well as the still unaddressed urgent need to resolve critical issues, one is again led to consider the possibility of a predicted outcome often attributed to Alexander Fraser Tyler (1747 -- 1813). To wit: "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy -- always followed by a dictatorship."

This need not be so. Needless to say, difficult cultural changes would be required as would an electorate informed by real news and leaders who don’t believe that money is everything.
The PBS program "American Creed" reflects an effort to help meet these requirements by fostering a national conversation about America’s ideals and identity.[10] 


1. Editors, Special Report, "The Opioid Diaries," Time Magazine, March 5, 2018
2. Stripling, Jack, "Unrivaled Power: Inside Auburn's secret effort to advance athlete-friendly curriculum," The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 23, 2018, p A12 
3, The Drake Group Press Release, April 8, 2008,
4. Smith, Christian, "Higher Education Is Drowning in BS: And it's morally corrosive to society," 
The Chronicle Review, February 8, 2018, pp B6.
5. Campos, Paul, "Universities' Sports-money Problem," The Detroit News, Feb. 12, 2018,
6. Kelderman, Eric, "Who Should Oversee Athletes' Academic Progress?" 
The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 2, 2018, pp A9
7. Bonestee, Matt and Hobson, Will, "Report details more than 20 players and programs implicated in college basketball probe," The Chicago Tribune, February 23, 2018,
8. Splitt, Frank G., "College Athletics and Corruption," College Athletics Clips, April 20, 2008,
9. Smith, Jay M. and Willingham, Mary, Cheated, The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports, Potomac Books, 2015. 
10. WTTW & Citizen Film (Producers), "American Creed," PBS, Feb. 27, 2018,

Frank G. Splitt, a former McCormick Faculty Fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, is the author of the book An Odyssey of Reform Initiatives, 1986-2015: From Engineering, K-12, and Higher Education, to the Environment, National Information Infrastructure, and Collegiate Athletics, accessible at

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