Elise Patkotak: Why is hockey coach best-paid teacher?

By ELISE PATKOTAKJune 25, 2013 

In China, when they want to create a class of athletes to challenge the world, they put them in a school specifically dedicated to athletics. They don't pretend the school is a university dedicated to the transmission of scientific or literary knowledge. Their universities are not training grounds for semi pro and professional sports teams. Their universities are focused on learning. If you ever wonder why the Chinese are rapidly overtaking us as the world's leading economic engine, you might ponder that.

I realize that any questioning of the decision by the University of Alaska Anchorage to pay a hockey coach $150,000 per annum is guaranteed to raise the kind of screams and cries usually associated with fans of the losing Super Bowl team. Hockey is a fairly sacred cow in Anchorage, at least among certain groups. Apparently there is nothing more important than winning that next game.

Meanwhile, the briefest of Goggle searches brings up the information that the highest salary earned by full professors (male) at UAA averages about $104,155. Of course if you're woman there's a deduction for having a womb, so the average a full professor (female) earns is $89,878. Normally, that discrepancy alone would be enough to make me go a little bat poop crazy. But in the context of what the University has agreed to pay the hockey coach, it doesn't even faze me.

The last time I looked, the job of a university was to educate. Its purpose was not to be the training ground for pro-hockey players - or, for that matter, pro basketball or pro football players. But looking at the difference in salary between someone teaching physics, chemistry, psychology, computer sciences or literature and the hockey coach, it becomes abundantly clear that we have lost that focus.

We tell our kids that an education is important. We tell them they have to be ready for the challenges of the world they will soon enter, a world in which competition will be fierce. Then we send them to a school in which the hockey coach is the highest paid faculty member on campus. Am I the only one who sees the hypocrisy inherent in that?

I have no doubt that many hockey players get a great education at UAA and go on to successful careers in many fields. Some might even end up playing professional hockey. Good for them. Too bad the kids on the debate team don't have a coach earning half as much money. It might leave them with the impression that their after class activity is equally as important. How about the students who enter science competitions? You know, the ones whose parents have probably worked their butts off to raise enough money for their kids to travel to national competitions. They don't have the budget the hockey or basketball team has. Yet, in the end, which skill do we really think will be more important to the future of this country?

Playing sports is a great way to get exercise, learn teamwork, and relieve the stress of daily classes, but it should not be the most important focus of a university. Team spirit is also important for any university. Winning teams provide great bragging rights. UAA has a debate team that has won some pretty impressive competitions. They did it without a coach earning more than all their other professors. Professors who are teaching those students whose future careers will determine whether America remains a world leader or not shouldn't be earning less money than a hockey coach. It's that simple.

We could use that money instead to attract the best in the field of climatology, computer sciences or sociology. By compensating those professors the way we compensate coaches, we send the message to students that those fields are at least equally as important as hockey.

I sometimes wonder if America has just given up on ever regaining the lead we once held over the rest of the world academically and has decided instead that it's just easier to focus on creating a winning college sports team. Instant gratification from their wins is so much more satisfying than the delayed gratification that comes from waiting while young minds are instructed in the intricacies of genetic decryption that could one day possibly lead to a cure for cancer.

How sad.

Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow.

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