Our Coach Has No Degree: Why It Matters
Well, another graduation day has passed at Rutgers. In the gray and the gloom, 14,302 degrees were conferred here in New Brunswick-Piscataway. Graduation remains a big deal even as, or perhaps especially because of, debates about the value of earning a degree have become a national pastime.
Barely a month ago, Rutgers hired one of its favorite sons, Eddie Jordan, and charged him with a nearly impossible task. In addition to taking over the men’s basketball team, Jordan was to help repair the substantial damage done to Rutgers’ reputation: 1.) by the Mike Rice, the previous coach, whose cursing, raging, intimidating interactions with his athletes, captured on video, went viral; 2:) by then Athletic Director Tim Pernetti’s ham-fisted defense of the original three-game suspension he handed down to Rice; and then 3.) by President Barchi’s flat-footed, fumbling and stumbling news conference that both announced and apologized for Pernetti’s firing. It was, as they say, a hot mess.
Given how impossible this challenge was at the time (it has only gotten more difficult since he arrived), Jordan seemed cast for the part: a big man with broad shoulders and a storied career returns to his alma mater to save the day. Jordan was on the last Rutgers team to make the Final Four in the NCAA Championship (1976); he was East Regional MVP that same year; he was drafted into the NBA in the second round in 1977; he played on four different pro teams during his seven year career, including the 1982 NBA Champion Lakers; he then went on to serve as the head coach of three different NBA teams. An amazing set of accomplishments: indeed, by 1980, just three years after he’d left Rutgers, he was inducted into the Rutgers Athletics Hall of Fame and, in 2004, he was inducted into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni. He is, by any measure, a great success.
Well, not exactly by any measure: Coach Jordan never completed his degree requirements; he’s not a Rutgers graduate or a graduate from any other institution of higher education either.
Well, who said he was? That’s the question I’d like for you to hold on to going forward. By sticking with this question, we will also get to the question of why it matters that he doesn’t have a degree.
Who said Eddie Jordan had a degree?
First answer: the current administration of Rutgers University and the Rutgers Athletic Department, May 2013.
When Deadspin.com’s John Koblin broke the story on Friday, May 10th that Jordan didn’t have a degree, he cited the RU athletic department’s bio for the new coach which stated in part:
RU’s all-time leader in both assists (585) and steals (220), “Fast Eddie” scored 1,632 career points and earned honorable mention All-American honors as a senior in 1977 before earning a degree in health and physical education.
When Koblin proved that Jordan’s claim to have earned a degree was a fabrication, the university stumbled all over itself trying to formulate a response. Exhausted by the preceding parade of athletic scandals and firings, the administration shrugged its shoulders and offered this non-explanation:
Eddie Jordan was inducted into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni in 2004 and he has been a part of the Rutgers family since 1977. His athletic skills and leadership and his professional accomplishments have been a source of pride for Rutgers for more than three decades. We are excited to have him as our men’s basketball coach and we look forward to many winning seasons.
OK, not exactly an explanation.
Did the hiring committee know that Jordan didn’t have a degree?
Was this a mistake by some low level (or high level) flunky or had the search committee, the interim AD, the President and the Board of Governors all failed, in the rush to fill the vacuum created by the firing of Mike Rice and the resignation of Tim Pernetti, to meet their responsibilities to do due diligence in investigating the viability of Jordan’s candidacy?
The non-explanation tries to shove those two reasonable questions aside, choosing instead to revel in the words “family,” “excited,” and “pride.” It’s a clumsy attempt at misdirection, so it’s not too hard to read between the lines. Jordan’s our guy. To hell with all you nattering nabobs of negativity.
A few hours later, around 7pm, May 10th, the university released what appeared at the time to be its final words on the matter. The new press release was actually just the previous press release with this paragraph added at the top:
While Rutgers was in error when it reported that Eddie Jordan had earned a degree from Rutgers University, neither Rutgers nor the NCAA requires a head coach to hold a baccalaureate degree. Eddie Jordan was a four-year letterman and was inducted into the Rutgers Athletics Hall of Fame in 1980. Rutgers sought Eddie for the head coach position as a target-of-opportunity hire based on his remarkable public career.
It was Rutgers’ mistake: the administration said he had a degree (yay!), but he didn’t (boo!), but it doesn’t matter (yay!): the NCAA doesn’t require a degree and neither do we (hip hip hooray!). No harm, no foul. Play ball!
Who said Eddie Jordan had a degree?
Second answer: Rutgers Public Relations Department (“communications”?), May 2013.
Read that first dependent clause again slowly: “While Rutgers was in error when it reported that Eddie Jordan had earned a degree from Rutgers University . . . .”
Note that it doesn’t say those charged with hiring Jordan knew he didn’t have a degree at the time they offered him the job. It says that an error was made in reporting that he had a degree.
Forgive me, but isn’t the next question obvious?
The story that RU is going with is that the mistake entered the system when some unnamed people in “communications” (Public Relations maybe?) were putting together Jordan’s biography. It’s not that Jordan claimed to have a degree in the materials he provided to the university; it’s that some mistake was made internally at the level of research.
Oh, these things happen, you say?
Who said Eddie Jordan had a degree?
Third answer: Wikipedia, January 2006.
That crack team of researchers might’ve headed out to Wikipedia, for example, where they would’ve found this entry before May 10th:
Jordan’s not responsible for what his Wikipedia entry says, obviously. For the moment, the important possibility to consider is that, at a top ranked research university, at a moment when the administration is struggling desperately to distance itself from a series of self-inflicted public relations disasters, the folks charged with introducing our Knight in Shining Armor (if you will) didn’t look further than a source known for being biased and incomplete.
How possible is it that the source for Jordan’s mythical degree is some exuberant, but untrained, contributor to Wikipedia?
Asking this question ends up revealing how long the bio of Jordan with a degree in health and physical sciences has been in circulation. Working back through Wikipedia’s revision history for Jordan’s bio, it is possible to trace, to the minute, the moment that the misinformation about Jordan’s educational past appeared.
That seems unlikely, doesn’t it?
Although Suvablee0506 stopped posting to Wikipedia in 2009, there’s nothing in his (or her) posts to suggest that the writer is anything other than an avid sports fan. (He–or she–posted on Al Groh, Frank Beamer, Heath Miller and at one point tried to upload a picture of Eddie Jordan that was rejected for copyright reasons.)
No one seems to have had a problem with Suvablee0506’s version of Jordan’s past in the more than seven years that passed between the original post granting Jordan his RU degree and the deadspin.com story in 2013. But, once the deadspin article appeared, the Wikipedia entry became an editorial battleground, with the revisers on one side hurling accusations of lies and coverups and the editors on the other side striving for balance :
Who said Eddie Jordan had a degree?
Fourth answer: The Washington Wizards Media Guide, 2006-2007.
Jordan joined the Wizards as their head coach in 2004.
I have not been able to find media guides for the 04-05 and 05-06 seasons, so I can’t say for certain whether the following entry appeared for the first time in the Wizards’ 06-07 media guide or if this bio is a copy of versions that appeared in one or both of the preceding years. In any event, the entry in the Wizards’ media guide brings the question of the source of confusion squarely to Jordan’s front door:
How did that get there?
There’s no laying the blame for this one at the feet of some unknown Wikipedia fan or some nameless drone idly googling in the bowels of the Rutgers PR department.
We have a time line problem: our Wikipedia writer gives Jordan the degree early in January 2006. The media guide above is for the 2006-2007 season, so it can’t be Suvablee0506’s source. Maybe in appeared in one of the earlier media guides for the Wizards, in which case Suvablee0506 could have read it there or head some basketball announcer drop the “fact” during a broadcast something prior to 1/18/2006. As of now (evening, May 28th, 2013), I can’t find any earlier media guide online: my guess is that they’re out there and I just haven’t figured out the right way to search for them yet.
Grinding away, I sweep for entries that link the phrase “Eddie Jordan,” “graduation,” and 2005: nothing significant. 2004, the year Jordan is inducted into the Rutgers Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame, seems more promising. I check the back issues of the alumni magazine: are you surprised that, in the year Rutgers inducted both Eddie Jordan and James Gandolfini (aka Tony Soprano), the alumni magazine doesn’t report on the event? Not a single word or image? There’s a reason our endowment is as low as it is and this fact points to one of those reasons….
Who said Eddie Jordan had a degree?
Fifth Answer: The Star Ledger, April 21st, 2004
So, induction day. As many pointed out in the immediate aftermath of the revelation about Jordan’s credit status, the designation “alumni” does not mean that one is a graduate; it just means that one attended the institution. (Thus, I’m an alum of Rollins College, though I only attended for one amazing, mind-expanding year.) Jordan is an alumni and he’s one of a number of alumni in the Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame who hasn’t or didn’t receive a degree from the university. He’s fully deserving of entry into the Hall (though the last three months have surely tarnished that honor for every single one of the hall’s members, including Jordan).
Look, however, at what happened when the Star-Ledger, the paper of record for the New Brunswick area, reported on the event the following day. In “Rutgers is Giving Tough Guy a Hall Pass,” (a title that doesn’t, in fact, make any sense), Kelly Heyboer provides a brief intro that focuses on the fact the James Gandolfini (aka “Tony Soprano) is being inducted to a hall that includes a Nobel prize-winner (Milton Friedman) and a host of unnamed “academic stars.” And then Heyboer lists the inductees. Here’s Jordan’s entry:
The Targum, the Rutgers school newspaper, also designated Jordan as a graduate in its article on the induction event two weeks later:
It’s possible both reporters were working from the same press packet released by Rutgers or that the Targum reporter used the earlier Star-Ledger article as a resource. Something caused them to conclude that Jordan had graduated: was it simply that they both confused the meaning for graduate with the meaning for alumni?
Is all of this just the result of mistaking one word for another?
While that would be embarrassing in its own right, it would let everyone off the hook and we could all agree with the current administration that there’s nothing to see here and that we should all just move along and go about our daily business.
But there’s no way to explain away the fact that Jordan’s degree in health and physical education appears in the Wizards media guide. We don’t get the story about the return of the hometown hero who cleans out the equivalent of the Augean Stables and we don’t get the much ado about a flunky clerical error story. This is too bad, because Rutgers is clearly in need of real leadership right now and it would be better for all of us who call Rutgers home if what is false were true and what is true were false. But, while our deluded leaders continue to argue for this solution, no thinking person who is committed to the long-term welfare of the institution, the welfare of our current students, and the success of all of our alums can embrace a plan grounded in deception and deceit. Only residents of a place that deserved being ridiculed as a Clown College would settle for such a solution.
Who said Eddie Jordan had a degree?
Sixth answer: Eddie Jordan. Obviously.
On May 13th, Jordan granted an interview with ESPN to discuss his educational past at Rutgers.
It’s worth working through his answers carefully.
Jordan told ESPN that he did not receive a diploma because of a registration issue, but he did complete his school hours in 1985. Jordan finished playing at Rutgers in 1977, then returned to school to complete his degree after his NBA career ended in 1984.
Thanks to deadspin, we have a copy of Jordan’s transcript. Because of FERPA, we don’t know what courses Jordan took or how he did in them–that’s his own business: we can only know, semester by semester, how many credit hours he racked up.
The big story, at the time, was that Jordan hadn’t piled up enough hours to graduate–an image, in itself, that captures the essence of education as credit accumulation. But, a closer look at the transcript points to a larger reality about college athletics: credit hours flow more easily in this realm than they do in the rest of the university. In fact, by the time Jordan left campus at the end of the spring of ’77, he’d racked up a whopping 185 credit hours! Given that it only takes 120 hours to qualify for graduation, what happened? Why did he need to return over three summers? Why didn’t the additional 26 credit hours he earned over those three summers, which pushed him over the 200 credit hour mark!, not lead to his graduation?
It’s possible that some of these credit hours represent classes Mr. Jordan failed?
Without having direct access to Jordan’s transcript, one can only guess at the explanation. All credit hours are not credit equal, as a trip to the special collections section of the Alexander Library revealed to me. (Yes, gentle reader, t2c actually entered a physical space in search of information and the heavens didn’t fall.) According to the 1977-1979 catalogue for Livingston College, there are quite a few restrictions on how a student piles up enough hours to qualify for a degree.
Take a deep breath–you are about to enter the granular world of how a degree gets made.
- No more than 24 of the 120 total credits can have been earned in courses that granted 2 credits or fewer.
- 30 of the last 42 credits must be taken at RU.
- At least 30 credits in the major or program or “approved and especially designed area of concentration in a multi-disciplinary program.” Excluded from these thirty credits is “independent study, internships, prior learning, summer experience, and credit by examination.”
- At least 30 credits at the 300 or 400 level (upper level courses, in other words). These may be earned in “classroom courses, independent study, or internship.,” but not “prior learning, summer experience, or credit by examination.”
- No more than 30 credits (25% of total credits) can be taken in internships independent study, or summer work experience.
There’s no knowing if Jordan exceeded the first requirement without access to his actual transcripts. Transferring credits isn’t an issue. So, the safest bet is that he ran into trouble either gathering together 30 credits in his major or program or “approved and especially designed area of concentration in a multi-disciplinary program” or meeting the 30 credit requirement for upper level courses or both.
Anyway you slice it, the transcript records an astonishing number of “empty” credits: out of his 211 credit hours, he’s not yet managed to assemble the right combination of upper level courses and courses in his chosen field of study to hit the magic number of 120.
Can we learn anything else from Jordan’s proof of attendance document?
In Jordan’s first year at Rutgers, he took an overload both semester: 20 hours in the fall and a stunning 24 in his spring semester. What’s the norm? The Academic Coordinating Committee established new minimums and maximums for course credit in 2003:
These are exactly the same requirements that were in place
for students enrolled at Livingston College in 1975 (see ’75 catalogue).
Translated this means that the minimum course load to retain full-time status as a student is the equivalent of four courses a semester. The maximum is just shy of seven courses.
In twenty years of teaching, I’ve had one student who has told me she was taking twenty-one credits: she’s an honors student, who transferred in a full-year of AP credit, and who, for financial reasons, is doing whatever she can to graduate in three years.
It’s never a good idea to trust personal experience in such matters, though. Maybe I don’t work with the most ambitious students? Maybe my experience isn’t representative.
Here’s the most recent data I could get on average credit hours by campus in 2006:
Maybe the numbers were radically different thirty years ago? I welcome correction on this matter.
If Jordan were a student at Rutgers now, his transcript would show that he exceeded the maximum credit limit in three semesters, twice earning credit for the equivalent of eight courses in one semester! And yet, he still didn’t manage to graduate? Or should I say !
Perhaps even more surprising: during the semester when Jordan was on the magical team that made it to the Final Four, spring of ’76, he was still able to earn 17 credit hours. The semester he was drafted, spring of ’77, he earned fifteen credit hours. At or above the average for students who don’t have daily practices, travel, nationally televised tournaments. Pretty good.
And one more thing about that degree, the one for the physical education major?
That major didn’t exist as a such during Jordan’s time at Rutgers; as far as I can tell, for such a thing to have existed, it would have had to have been, as described above, an “approved and especially designed area of concentration in a multi-disciplinary program.” Assuming it was, there would be a record of that approval somewhere in the Livingston College archive. And so, if the goal was to correct an injustice the institution has done to Mr. Jordan, that document could be retrieved, Mr. Jordan’s transcript re-assessed, and a determination made of what stands between him and graduation.
So, what’s Jordan’s version of what happened?
Here’s ESPN’s account of Jordan’s explanation:
“Some of the professors are still around and some are gone but they all know I was in class and did my work,” said Jordan. “There was arrogance on my part when I was told I didn’t register right and then I left to (coach at) Old Dominion. I was told my classes were never recorded. I saw a transcript. I will have to find it. I was there and I completed the work. My professors that are still there know that. That’s it.”
Jordan said he learned after his final semester that he was never officially registered.
“I went back to Rutgers in 1984-85 as a voluntary assistant to complete my studies,” said Jordan. “I didn’t walk. I didn’t get a diploma because I wasn’t registered right. That’s it. I was 28 and didn’t take care of my business. It was never an issue.”
Are you following? Jordan’s explanation is that he actually did do the work and that some unidentified professors who are still here 28 years later remember that he was there and did his work. We just have to trust him on that one.
There are a couple of problems with this explanation. First, and foremost, it doesn’t seem to be supported by the transcript we have. Jordan says he wasn’t registered in 84-85, but he does show up earning six credits that summer. Does he mean he should’ve earned credits in the fall of 84 and the spring of 85 but didn’t because of a registration error?
Why didn’t he fix this: “I was 28 and didn’t take care of my business. It was never an issue.”
Meaning? Meaning no one in professional sports cares one way or another if you’ve earned your degree: it’s not a gateway, clearly, to being a head coach in the NBA, so why’s it a big deal now?
I can imagine being upset and frustrated by the institutional rigamarole at Rutgers. (Indeed, I don’t have to imagine this; I live it.) It’s the next step that’s the one that gives me pause–and should also give pause to everyone who either values what a degree from Rutgers means or wants a degree from Rutgers to be valued.
Jordan said he was a physical education major and took health and physical education classes that last semester.
After the semester, Jordan said he then left for Old Dominion to become an assistant, and he put on resumes that he graduated from Rutgers in 1985, not 1977 when he finished playing.
Got it? After 1985, Jordan conferred a degree on himself. And not from just any university, but from the university that has now hired him.
Why would a university hire someone who lied about graduating from that same university?
And once it was revealed that the error had been made, why did that same university not even make some sort of feeble gesture in the direction of getting Mr. Jordan to graduate. To the contrary, Rutgers itself has announced, retroactively, that the degree is unnecessary:
Rutgers sought Eddie for the head coach position as a target-of-opportunity hire based on his remarkable public career.
It has been a remarkable public career. Who could argue with that assessment?
For what it’s worth, I think that it should be standard practice that anyone inducted to the Rutgers Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame who hasn’t earned a degree here receives an honorary bachelor’s degree upon induction. I believe in experiential education and in the education of experience: indeed, when I chaired the committee that formulated a core curriculum for the School of Arts and Sciences here at Rutgers close to a decade ago, I argued strongly for the inclusion of a core requirement in experiential learning.
That curriculum was decisively voted down by the faculty, with especial scorn heaped upon the provision for experiential learning. I disagree strongly with that vote, still, and I think the curriculum that has been put in its place, with 27 core requirements, is a monument to institutional indifference. But here’s the thing, it doesn’t, at the institutional level, matter one bit what I think. I’m not empowered, nor do I see myself as in a position to empower myself, to create my own set of requirements for my students and grant them degrees based on my own beliefs about what constitutes a rounded, meaningful education in the 21st century. There’s the brute reality of it: the rules are the rules and degree-granting institutions stand or fall on the basis of, first, whether or not they have rules worth enforcing and, then, whether or not they enforce those rules fairly and consistently.
Does it matter that now the highest paid state employee in New Jersey is someone who has acknowledged lying in the past about having graduated from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey? Does it matter that, from all appearances, it seems clear that the Rutgers administration did not know, when it hired this same person, that he had not, in fact, graduated from the university?
If Rutgers where a pro team, it wouldn’t matter, because pro teams are designed for profit and entertainment. But Rutgers is not a pro team. It’s an institution of higher learning and what it produces, first and foremost, are degreed students, undergraduates and graduates, practitioners and researchers, those destined for the public sphere and those who will work in the private sphere.
Although my position on this wouldn’t change if Jordan had responded to deadspin’s revelation differently, it would soften: what Jordan didn’t say is that his actions were wrong; he didn’t say that having a degree matters, if not in his highly unique case, in the case of almost all of the young men he will coach; he didn’t say that he had made arrangements to return to class and fulfill whatever requirements remain. Instead, he responded in a way that is entirely consistent with the values of the current leadership in the athletic program: ” I didn’t get a diploma because I wasn’t registered right. That’s it.”
Picture this man speaking to his new recruits. Knowing that he didn’t graduate from Rutgers and yet claimed that he did as far back as 1985, how is anyone within hearing meant to respond to these words, which Jordan mouthed on the day he was hired:
I’m really honored and blessed to be named the caretaker of our team, of our program, of our university’s basketball program. I say “our” because we’ve all come to a point that we have to regain our pride, our dignity and our integrity to our university.
Pride? Dignity? Integrity? Our university?
In his welcome speech, Jordan also made a point to praise Rutgers for the thoroughness of its search process:
I’d like to thank our Board of Governors and our Board of Trustees who understood the meaning of due diligence. People have taken some criticism on the length of time, but the due diligence was very important in their minds and in their actions to get this thing right. And I’m glad that they chose me.
If you travel to Paris and visit the Louvre, you may wander through a gallery with Jean-Louis David’s enormous painting, The Consecration of Napoleon I and the Coronation of Empress Josephine. The enormity of the canvas stops most people. When I went in search of the image to conclude this piece, I ended up, as fate would have it, on The PennStater, a blog maintained by the Staff of Penn State’s Alumni Magazine. The images captures alums touring through Paris and its environs; it’s the summer of 2010 and no one was thinking about Jerry Sandusky or Joe Paterno or the possibility that just beneath the surface of of their hugely successful athletic program roiled a deep and consistent belief in being above the law.
The alums go to Versailles, St. Chapel, and then the Louvre, snapping a picture of David’s painting:
David chooses to depict not the moment when Napoleon took the crown from Pope Pius VII and crowned himself, but rather the moment when the Pope has to stand by, frozen in humiliation, as Napoleon is in the process of crowning Josephine. Napoleon’s stagecraft was brilliant: his divine right to rule his empire came not from any worldly representative of the divine; the only person powerful enough to crown him emperor was himself.
We no longer live in the age where there are divine rights accorded to a ruling class or a ruling religion. In a secular society, we rely on our various institutions to, if not insure equal access to opportunity, then at least to enable the possibility of this being a shared goal. Mr. Jordan is not Napoleon. Those of us who work at Rutgers, who value the work all our other students do here and the struggles, sacrifices, and yes, mindless frustrations, they overcome in meeting a shared set of requirements, don’t need to stand idly by while the administration participates in the degradation of our core social contribution.
If Mr. Jordan’s degree-less status is not addressed and he fails to take full responsibility for the misrepresentations in his past, then Rutgers really will be best understood as a sport club, with a school for fans attached. Is the Board of Governors truly not capable of seeing the importance of this? What about those 14,302 students who got degrees days after Mr. Jordan was hired? Might they, and those who have gone before them, and those currently at work on their degrees, not find a way to make their voices heard, at a pitch and at an intensity, that would surpass the loudest moments ever experienced in the RAC or in High Point Solutions stadium, a noise so loud it would force the Board to act?
Next up: Our New Athletic Director Has a History of Abuse in the Workplace: Why It Matters.
Previous posts in this series include:
1. The Video Will Out
The source for the communications-department-caused-the-error explanation may be found here.
Suvablee0506’s profile can be found here.
The Washington Wizards 2006-2007 media guide may be found here. I would welcome .pdfs of earlier media guides from the Wizards or the 97-98 Sacramento Kings. I don’t think the self-granted degree is likely to appear in the Lakers’ media guides, 1980-84, but I’d welcome the chance to confirm this if any interested readers have access to those guides.
The self-granted degree does not appear in the 2009-2010 Philadelphia 76ers media guide:
The 76ers media guide may be found here.
Heyboer, Kelly. “Rutgers is giving tough guy a hall pass.” The Star-Ledger, April 21, 2004. [Accessed via Access World News]