Friday, July 21, 2006

How NOT to Defend Your Alma Mater

In the days since the scandal broke, a lot of Auburn graduates/dropouts/fans have been rushing to Auburn's defense. For a while, it was the main topic of every sports radio show in the area, though it seems to be dying out now. Though the immediate subject of this post is the Auburn fake courses scandal, it isn't really about that, but about how to react when your alma mater is caught in scandal.*

There's nothing wrong with the urge to defend your alma mater. Loyalty is a virtue. Even if you aren't a virtuous person, the value of your own degree rises and falls with the reputation of your school, which is why schools with successful alumni like to invite them to speak at commencement. I myself am proud of the success of my friends from Butler, because that reflects well on the school, which in turn reflects well on me.

There are smart ways to defend your alma mater, and ways that are ... let's just say "not so smart." In the local scandal, the not-so-smarts have dominated the discourse (Sorry to pick on Vodkapundit -- I wish I could link to local radio shows somehow). The problem is that otherwise smart people get caught up in the rhetoric and then find themselves having to back away; e.g., witness how this blogger started with one position, but when confronted, had to admit it was a red herring (read through the comments).**

OK, so you find that your alma mater is under attack, and risks having its reputation sullied. How do you defend it? The first principle to remember is this: Do not defend your alma mater in any way that further sullies its repututation! When you do this, you aren't helping the situation any. So, then, some defenses to avoid:
  • "It wasn't just athletes." Obviously, this one is specific to athletic scandals. If you are a student athlete, this defense isn't great, but is acceptable. If you aren't an athlete, then what are you suggesting ... that all the the students at Alma Mater University take fake classes? If I were a grad, I'd keep the fact that it wasn't just athletes very, very quiet.
  • "That major is known to be very easy." Sure, some majors are more difficult than others -- but do you really want to say that some of the majors at Alma Mater are so very easy that there is no distinction between fake classes and real ones?
  • "The professor is evil/stupid." So, the professors at Alma Mater University are evil/stupid? What does that say about students who successfully graduated?
  • "Other schools do it too." Look ma, I'm the lowest common denominator!
  • "That student was always evil/stupid" Limited to scandals involving students. This is an acceptable defense if the student in question flunked or was expelled. If they graduated, then you are implying that being evil or stupid is no barrier to getting the same degree you hold.
Alright, these are ways NOT to defend your school. How, then, can the loyal graduate defend the alma mater? There are a few different ways, depending on the situation:
  • If the scandal appears to be very minor, ignore it. Don't give it extra press.
  • If the scandal appears to suggest real wrong-doing at your school, try this: "Well, if true, that is certainly shocking. I never saw anything like that when I was a student there. I hope the administration investigates and holds people accountable. After all, Alma Mater University cannot give up her high standards, can she?"
  • If the scandal appears to be a fake scandal manufactured on a slow news day, or by a rival institution, try this: "Pffft. I don't believe it for a second. We should investigate, to uphold our high standards, but I find it hard to believe such a thing could happen at Alma Mater U."
  • If investigations show wrong-doing, try this: "Well, his head should roll. Alma Mater University can't tolerate that kind of behavior. We sure didn't put up with it when I was a student there!"
Please note that the virtue of each of these defenses is that it does no damage to the reputation of the school (or to its degree-holders), and instead reinforces the idea that the norm at your school is high academic/ethical/professional standards. Of course, these defenses require that the defender hold his school to a high standard, but I don't see that as a negative thing.

*By the way, please don't accuse me of being a University of Alabama homer. As a yankee, I find the whole Alabama/Auburn rivalry as mystifying as the Arsenal/Manchester United rivalry.

**Kudos to John Hay ... not for agreeing with my position, but for having the guts to back away from a previously blogged position after reconsidering it. Too many other bloggers would have dug in their heels.

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