Few would disagree with an assertion that higher education is one of the more important dimensions of a free and prosperous society. For even those who resist the idea of a college education as a pathway to work preparation, one has to recognize that those with college educations have higher lifetime earnings and contribute more to the common welfare because of their productivity and ingenuity.
Yet, what evidence do we have that rewarding work is part of the way higher education functions or what it teaches. Two glaring contradictory examples hit the media in the form of the U.S. Supreme Courts unanimous action on college athletes and the other is Amazon's employment model.
At issue in the Supreme Court ruling is defining the parameters of educational aid offered to athletes while they contribute their athletic prowess to the universities for free. Justice Kavanaugh wrote in his opinion on the case "Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate." The NCAA asserts the importance of amateurism in athletes as the justification for denying more substantive compensation for athletes. But how can an institution defend "amateurism" in the face of the incredibly uneven field of play (pardon the pun) between big-time athletic programs that generate millions and those institutions that scrape by trying to adhere to the amateur assumption. If the actors (athletes) in an economic model bring disproportionate benefit to the institutions they serve, especially when other actors (coaches, athletic directors) are directly compensated based on how often they win, how can a reasonable argument be made that those on the field deserve no compensation at all? The Supreme Court decision is not definitive on broader compensation but leans toward a model I've long advocated - define big-time sports programs at select universities as semi-professional farm teams and allow appropriate compensation for all who help generate revenue. Then the rest of U.S. higher education can return to a truly amateur model, competing among themselves in balanced ways that offers athletes the opportunity to develop skill, agility, strength and health as educational outcomes.
Poll findings indicate mixed support for paying college athletes. One of the key issues is whether compensation would come from university funds, with most respondents opposing it. The NCAA took steps to revise the amateurism rules by allowing athletes to promote and benefit from commercializing their names, representing the first opportunity for greater personal gain.
Communications staff on college campuses need to start conversations with athletic departments to revise strategies for communicating the purpose of athletics. The messages will require realignment with the reality of what sports are really about on campuses.
Jeff Bezos is one of the wealthiest individuals in the world and Princeton, his undergraduate alma mater, is presumably where he learned things that would lead to his success in creating Amazon as a pervasive and highly lucrative industry. The only problem with claiming the victory with Bezos is that his financial model relies on highly pressurized employee performance, minimally acceptable compensation, and advocacy for high turnover that preserves low production costs and undermines joint labor action that could demand a more humane model of worker welfare.
Both of these cases beg the question of what higher education is teaching about rewarding work. If creativity, innovation, individual and community uplift are the goal, then diametrically opposed examples such as uncompensated semi-professional athletes and employers who implement victimizing employment practices require further examination.