This column has, I believe, at least one modest claim on the reader's attention: it's unique. It's a thoroughgoing, all-out defense of the University of Maryland.
At best, among the multitude of news analyses and articles triggered by Len Bias' tragic death, all I've seen is an occasional touch of sympathy for a university beset by formidable, perhaps insoluble, problems. At worst, I've seen such hostile pieces as Carl Rowan's sanctimonious sermon and Dorothy Gilliam's quite unrealistic prescription that the university should have told the athletes they must study and go to class.
But first let me do what the British call declaring my interest. I've taught at Maryland for years, and I'm devoted to it. I'm certain that it has the best location of any state university and that it has been growing steadily better as it takes advantage of that location. I bled when I saw the scorn in some of the columns printed after Bias' death.
However, my devotion has by no means extended to College Park's intercollegiate football and basketball teams. In fact, I once introduced a resolution in the University Senate that we withdraw from intercollegiate football since it had "dubious educational value." As you can imagine, the resolution was voted down 10 to 1. I'm still convinced that I was right: that we would have served notice to academe that here was a state university that put scholarship first.
Let's begin with Len Bias. I attended the memorial service for him at Cole Field House. That was the night before we knew definitely that cocaine had been the killer. The angry columns I scanned during the next few days charged almost without exception that the university should somehow have kept him from access to coke. If you gave this contention any thought at all, you'd see that it demanded the impossible. But even if it hadn't, I'm sure Len Bias would have found a way, preferably a risky way, to celebrate. It was the end of the school year, and he'd just achieved a totally intoxicating success.
It used to be that one of the roles universities and colleges played was that of Alma Mater, foster mother. But from the mid-1960s on, that role was gradually battered to bits by activist students. Student bodies grew increasingly independent, with the aid of feckless faculty members and weak administrations. It became imperative to believe that if students were given complete independence, they would become not only better students but better people. We know now that this is nonsense. When personal responsibility goes to the extreme, as it did in Len Bias' case, the result can be disaster.
The escape hatch for the advocates of a minimum of rules and requirements and a maximum of personal freedom on campus is simple. They claim that the benign influence of the faculty on the students will take the place of any regulations. As a faculty member for decades, I must say sadly that this is nonsense too. The only faculty members I've seen on the College Park campus who apparently have influenced students are those who yearn to be more student-like than the students themselves -- and I doubt that their influence has been good.
Furthermore, what I'm saying holds not only for a big state university such as Maryland but for a small, elite college. One of my more recent friends has been chairing a major department at Middlebury College in Vermont. When Geraldine Ferraro's son was charged with drug dealing there, a storm of criticism from alumni and outsiders like those who savaged the University of Maryland broke about the bowed heads of the Middlebury faculty. But, as my friend said, the Middlebury faculty had no better chance, and no more desire, to police the campus than did the University of Maryland faculty. Neither body was much good in stamping out drug use on campus.
There are things a college or university can do, and I believe the University of Maryland is doing them. The leadership provided by Chancellor John Slaughter has, to my mind, been exemplary. Along with drug testing for athletes he has a chance to institute a range of reforms in intercollegiate athletics.
But beyond that lies the problem of safeguarding the health of the whole student body. I don't see any campaign to restrict drug use or to expel drug pushers that will succeed without campus-wide support. I can see the ACLU waiting in the wings along with those students whose drugs are an integral part of their lives. They'll be fighting to be left alone. I predict that we'll arraign a few drug pushers, but if they're students, I'm not sure that we'll get very far. I hope I'm wrong.
Meanwhile, a widely admired young man is dead, and the university that has been building itself up over the years must start again. Our eminent work in a dozen different and distinguished departments may be forgotten, while Len Bias' unfortunateju end will remain imbedded in the public's memory.
A few good things will doubtless result from all this furor. The main one is that intercollegiate football and basketball will be brought back within bounds. Some of the most noxious rules, such as letting student athletes compete even when they're only freshmen, will be done away with. But I see no solution to the principal problem: should we let a student enroll simply because he (or she -- the women athletes are following close behind the men in their abuses) has a gifted body but not necessarily a gifted mind?
Finally, a word about Len's coach, Lefty Driesell. Almost everyone seems to have noted that he called the team together after Len's death, with -- the imputation is -- a sinister purpose. Almost no one seems to have noted that earlier this spring while on tour, he sent Len and two teammates home for breaking curfew -- and that our team lost, just as Lefty had probably anticipated it would. I believe he was trying to build character and that he stood ready to pay the price. I've noticed some attempts to make Lefty the scapegoat in this whole business. I hope he coaches basketball at Maryland as long as he can move around.