A Better Future

Eugene is a beautiful, sleepy town, a place where, to quote Garrison Keillor on his recent Prairie Home Companion rebroadcast, “People are more concerned with living well than getting ahead.” The city is many things: eco-activists fed on local organics flourishing alongside a swoosh-tattooed sports empire of sparkle and grandeur, a town whose seeming ’60s Bohemianism is often driven by trustafarii dollars from L.A. and the Bay Area.

In the volume bars, college co-eds orange with spray tan and giddy with Duck spirit are chased at drunken speeds by liquored young men whose bonhomie is lexically bro-homie, served booze by well-scrubbed bartenders and cleaned up after by mustachioed barbacks; in quieter watering holes, bearded bartenders swizzle artisanal syrups with traditional bourbons, serve up craft beer of myriad makes to patrons whose knowledge concerning bitterness units and alcohol by volume is inevitably eclipsed by aggregated pints.

On the streets, men in Utilikilts commute on unicycle, the valet services are all bike, lasses in tie-dye skirts clutch hemp valises and everybody mans the picket lines to save the trees. We do have too much Thai food and nary a decent dim sum or Ethiopian joint, and at times our innovation in varieties of dreadlock presentation among white people correlates with the overwhelming percentage of the population suffering ailments responsive only to medical marijuana, but nobody is perfect. This place is special.

I was born and raised in Eugene and returned here to live; I work in support of a particularly vulnerable part of the university community, teaching low-income first-generation students of color. In the last decade, I’ve watched the UO’s institutional priorities shift from serving students from within the state of Oregon to attracting more lucrative full-tuition-paying students from California and Washington, Saudi Arabia and China. The institution’s aggressive recruitment of international students has been touted as “fostering diversity,” though little institutional infrastructure or resources have been directed toward ensuring success for students trying to learn in their second language.

Most holy of all is the UO’s world-class sports entertainment department, an appellate division of Nike that helps advertise and brand the university nationally. These shifts in institutional priorities have transformed the university and they have inevitably changed the town, whether in the ubiquitous high-end apartment complexes that cater to Californian and Chinese students with means to rent them, or in the fevered green and yellow fervor that has marked the football program’s ascension. As the UO goes, so too does the rest of the valley: Look at the local Register-Guard, increasingly mediocre in coverage of the community, state, nation and world, but robust in all matters Duck athletics.

The minority student-athlete is the one kind of diversity the university has committed to fully, as the sparkling floors of the “Jaqua Center for Athletes Who Don’t Read Good” attests, though recent court decisions suggest that the pretense that athletes are ordinary students has finally been lifted decades after amateurism in college sports actually ended. The UO won’t perhaps pay for play, but they will have to allow a pittance for the labor whose advertising success has transformed the university from a good regional public educational institution to a nationally prominent, corporatized, privatized sports powerhouse. The effects of this move on the integrity of the institution, and on the culture of Eugene, have gone unrecognized until recently.

The facts of the recent UO basketball debacle have been detailed and opined about elsewhere; what most stuck with me was the victim’s statement that her treatment by the three players seemed normal, even to be expected, that “this was the sort of thing that happened to you at college.” Perhaps at a college of the sort Oregon is fast becoming. Little surprise that President Gottfredson was shown the door in the scandal’s aftermath, or that his tenure was so ineffectual: He was hired not to be Richard Lariviere, to respect how beholden he was to the upper echelons of Johnson Hall and the Casanova Center and the donors, lobbyists and movers and shakers of state higher education — that is, he was hired to be weak.

As the university gathers itself to recover and find new direction under a new president, in an alleged era of shared governance with freshly unionized faculty under the new purview of a board particular to this institution, we should be raising our voices, asking difficult questions about our values and interests, even about our own complicity in the ugliness of this past year — I love my Ducks, watched every football game last year, cheered at the basketball team’s performance in the NCAA tournament. It is easier to blame administrators and coaches and the institution for accepting a “rape culture” or compromising its integrity in pursuit of success and the almighty dollar than to consider that to enjoy the fruits is to be a part of the problem. Clearly, we are not going to abandon athletics, but moving forward, we should be able to do better than to prioritize victory at any cost.

After all, we live in the heart of a valley to which many came West, seeking the good life. If today this is less the land of milk and honey than grass-seed and soy-substitute, we are nonetheless seated at the confluence of two rivers, bounded by forests of towering Douglas fir, by green glades crossed by streams. We are surrounded by farms and orchards, framed by buttes, blessed by more than most even on our meanest streets. We should demand a future for both institution and community that is different and better, in line with who we are and what we would become. — Michael Copperman