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HIGHER EDUCATION

Dawg Days

Let Leno get his yuks. Alums know Georgia is more than just a punch line.

March 21, 2004|Steve Oney | Steve Oney is the author of "And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank."

The news that the final exam in a physical education class at the University of Georgia taught by former assistant basketball coach Jim Harrick Jr. and attended by scholarship athletes included such no-brainer questions as "How many points does a 3-point field goal account for in a basketball game?" prompted the predictable reactions.

For comedians, the questions -- released in response to a National Collegiate Athletic Assn. investigation -- were a gold mine. In his monologue on NBC's "The Tonight Show," Jay Leno, referring to the one about the worth of a 3-point field goal, deadpanned: "I don't know who was more embarrassed, the college, the coach or the six players who got it wrong." For University of Georgia faculty members and students, the revelations were mortifying. "We're going to be held up to the rest of the world as a laughingstock," journalism professor Conrad Fink told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

So is the news comedy or tragedy? Both. When it comes to comedic material (among the other questions was this stumper: "How many goals are on a basketball court?"), it doesn't get much better than this. Yet to an institution that in the last decade has made great academic strides thanks to Georgia's Hope Scholarship Program, which provides lottery-generated tuition money for students who maintain a sufficiently high grade-point average, the exam is a betrayal.

There is, however, a third group yet to be heard from: alumni such as me, old enough to remember that for most of its history the University of Georgia, save for its Veterinary Medicine College and a couple of English professors, would never have been mistaken as the Harvard of the South.

This is not to say that graduates of a certain age -- a group that includes anyone over 35 -- don't cherish the leafy University of Georgia campus or express their affection for the football Bulldogs by loudly, and often inappropriately, exclaiming, "Go DAWGS." Yet when it comes to such subjects as excellence in the classroom, most members of the University of Georgia community of my vintage just avoid the topic. What the Triangle musical club was to Princeton, a tailgate party was to Georgia. What a science lab was to MIT, the Kappa Alpha fraternity house was to us.

True, accolades from the outside were occasionally bestowed. During the 1970s, Playboy, in a ranking of the nation's best party colleges, accorded Georgia an asterisk. The school was ineligible, the fine print explained, because when it came to raucous behavior, its students were professionals.

In other words, the University of Georgia that most alumni recall was never the proper stop for aspiring members of the meritocracy. It was a great place to quaff a cold beer but not to set up a career in anything much beyond state politics or the family business.

The school's lax and languid reputation did not, however, mean that the students were lazy or stupid. Indeed, for a determined student, Georgia offered a tremendous, albeit unintended, source of traction. There was only one way to overcome a tradition of underachievement, and that was to achieve -- and many did. The school also had something else going for it in the bad old days. To students with open minds, the raw experiences to be had in an academic backwater were infinitely more broadening than the choreographed experiences given to the kids whose test scores got them into the Ivy League.

Still, for all of that, following my graduation from the University of Georgia in 1979 I would -- speaking only partly in jest -- tell new friends that I was in recovery from a University of Georgia education.

And so the school's reemergence, thanks to the Harrick exam, as a punch line of jokes is, at least to me, oddly reassuring. This is the University of Georgia I know and love. My favorite question among the 20 that the assistant coach posed is this: "What is the name of the exam which all high school seniors in the state of Georgia must pass?" Among the possible answers: "How do the grits taste exam" and "Bug control exam." (The correct answer was: "Georgia Exit Exam.") Talk-show hosts may chortle and scholars may scoff, but as a graying alumnus, all I can say is: "Go DAWGS."

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