Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Reaction to "Dear Alma Mater: I'm Sorry"

Seal of Union College in Schenectady, New York...
Seal of Union College in Schenectady, New York, United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When I opened up the e-paper today, my heart skipped a beat. Union hockey featured on Puck Daddy? In Sports Illustrated? A New York Times post penned by editors of the Concordiensis? A lengthy piece in the print version of the Wall Street Journal? This must be the land where milk and honey meet ice and sticks. Union's good vibes have been resonating around the internet lately, and for good reason. With cynical lenses or not, it has been hard to diffuse the glare of a tremendous story. Little Union of just over 2,000 students and no athletic scholarships taking on the Goliaths of the hockey world...and winning. But they've done more than just win; they've given credence to a belief that hard work and years of patience coupled can pay off. Two headliners have grabbed the college hockey world's commendation. Jeremy Welsh, he of 27 goals and an imposing frame is a legitimate NHL prospect and a supremely poised, humbled player. Troy Grosenick, "The Man With the Golden GAA," is sincere, hardworking...and very good at hockey. (But this isn't the time or place to focus on the media, or the fact that it has hardly been just Welsh and Grosenick carrying this squad). It is hard to avoid the undertow of the Union wave. 

When I opened the final link on my docket, an article in the Wall Street Journal written by Union graduate Matthew Futterman, I was enthused. Until the third paragraph. And things unraveled from there.

Mr. Futterman spins a yarn detailing his self-described campaign to "kill Union's Division I hockey program before it started." There is nothing fundamentally wrong about Mr. Futterman's self-described campaign "to kill Union's Division I hockey program before it started...21 years ago." Every student has the right to his predilections and to the equally essential license to make his voice heard. This element cuts to the core of Union's foundation as a liberal arts institution. It is an irrevocable right enjoyed by citizens of a "free world." Mr. Futterman's reasonings are his own, and rightfully his. They are, too, in my opinion, deeply misguided, bitter, and an unfortunate work of self-aggrandizement that has little to do with Union's appearance in the Frozen Four. 

To paraphrase Union graduate Phil Alden Robinson's 1989 film Field of Dreams, I often have to reassure myself: "is this heaven? No, it's Schenectady." I unabashedly love my future alma mater, but I don't fancy myself an apologist. There are issues, naturally, that are at the center of debate amongst Union's community. But this is no different than any other college or university, especially the ones Mr. Futterman alludes to in his article. The 'big three' he refers to--Harvard, Yale, Princeton--share similar discord. All colleges do; it is a part of the essential nature of higher education. Conflict, whether between the student body and administration, or perhaps the college and surrounding neighborhoods, is inevitable. 

But Mr. Futterman insists on belittling Union to the point of nausea. He begins with an introduction of the pompously worded "slightly less-than-illustrious history of this small, liberal arts college." To which I will point Mr. Futterman in the direction of Nobel Prize winners, Presidents of the United States, Secretaries of State, inventors, authors, and so forth. It's one thing to deride Union--again, completely within Mr. Futterman's rights--but to so egregiously mislabel a cherished, historic, and venerated institution on a national level smacks of bitterness. Chester Arthur, by the way, certainly doesn't have the cache of other presidents, but does William Howard Taft, a Yale graduate? 

Arthur, a one-term president like Taft, did his job without much fanfare, and championed the Pendleton Civil Service Act, a piece of legislation that is a cornerstone of the current American model. Also like Taft, previous party associations prevented him from taking a second term. Wrote an historian: "No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired ... more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe."

But this is not a political or historical blog, nor should it be.

The troubling part of Mr. Futterman's article is that it reads dangerously as a misinformed personal attack on the school. Clearly, as the author is willing to point out, he "can admit to some embarrassing personal motivations" in his attacks on the college. He writes:

As a member of the tennis team (0-8 in singles my senior year), I didn't want hockey to hog the athletic department's budget. Also, I had my eye on some academic awards and figured this cause would burnish my (suspect) reputation as a serious thinker. Besides, there were attractive, intellectually inclined females to impress, too—the kinds who quoted Gertrude Stein and rolled their own cigarettes.
Mr. Futterman is, in essence, waging a war that ended 21 years ago. His disgust with the administration and Roger Hull's refusal to accept his advice to prevent the hockey team from going Division I drove his vitriol two decades ago. Now, as Union hockey takes center stage nationally (there have been over 100 articles written in the past two days on the team), it certainly appears that Mr. Futterman cannot bear the thought of letting his alma mater get away scott free. Which again, is perfectly within his rights. He can hold grudges--we all can. It's completely within his right.

But let me tell you a story. I have a family member who graduated from Union in the mid 1970s. He beams when anyone refers to the college; there is no college, in his opinion, that is better than this. (I happen to agree). But in the late 1990s, the college committed an error that drove him to the brink of disowning the school he loves. Grudges are funny things; they can be all-consuming and wildly self-destructive. He was ready to forget the place that he loved. But the college reached out to him, and, a decade later, make a concerted effort to rectify the mistake that had disillusioned him in the first place. This is the stuff that makes Union what it is. It's at once able to sustain a rich history (despite what Mr. Futterman says) and maintain the personal connection native to a small institution. I'd advise Mr. Futterman to call the college, or even come back for a visit. Any "mistakes" that were made in the past can be rectified.

But he seems hell-bent on promoting his own, skewed agenda. Particularly odious is his misguided classification of the college:
Known as the "mother of fraternities," Union birthed undergraduate Greek life and produced Chester A. Arthur, the forgettable 21st president. The college scenes in "The Way We Were" were filmed there and the campus features one the world's only 16-sided symmetrical buildings. Not exactly marketing gold for a private college that runs about $54,000 a year.

There is no mention of the virtues and rich history of Union. If Mr. Futterman chooses not to acknowledge these, again, it is within his right. But to publish his personal vendetta against the school in a widely read publication is not only wrong, it is cowardly and damaging. When someone unfamiliar with the school picks up this issue of the Wall Street Journal, they are liable to write off Union as a mere "safety school," one that never rubbed elbows with the "elite colleges" of the United States. These are, simply, pernicious inaccuracies. Unfortunately, the Wall Street Journal's word is often as good as gold. Why would a non-informed reader question this?

Mr. Futterman claims to apologize for being "wrong" about the hockey program, but he also insists that the program had proven him right, up until last year. There are legions of fans, former players and students who can attest to the value of a program that, even in its worst days, provided a valuable asset for the college. As much as Mr. Futterman may not agree, college sports are not all about winning. They are about camraderie, scholarship, and a common bond forged throughout campus.

Mr. Futterman is using his bully pulpit as a sports writer to promulgate an untrue characterization of the college--all seemingly to rekindle the flames of a war he waged 21 years ago as a college senior. He complains about the administration's refusal to listen to him. But his own article implies the notion that he was a self-righteous college senior who could not stand to be rejected by the administration. It is unfortunate, for Union, the feel-good story of the college hockey world, and Mr. Futterman, that this article was published.

But most of all, it is unfortunate for the loyal and deserving alumni of Union College that they can be classified on a national scale as somehow inferior simply because one man decided to relive a personal vendetta in what should be an objective, well-informed publication.

And oh yeah, "Jungle Love" is an awesome song.
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  1. Great article! I was also upset about the WSJ article. This needed to be written.

    -Union Alum

    A name that will live in infamy.

    Hopefully there will be an FUTTERMAN effigy hanging from the Nott soon. How about an
    "EVIL FUTTERMAN" day before finals?
    F U TTERMAN. The sophomoric possibilities seem endless. Winless teams could receive FUTTERMAN Trophies. Rejected suitors would not be "dumped" they'd be "FETTERMAN'd". Etc.

  3. I respect your writing here. I wish there were more people critical of the media that covers ECAC Hockey on a regular basis.

    One point...Taft is the only person to serve as both President and Chief Justice of the United States. And if you are going to complain about one's skewed writing, it's not fair to only name who you believe to be the least noteworthy President Yale produced. Have to name them all.

  4. Upon actually reading Futterman's article, I think you went way overboard. The guy wasn't reliving anything or belittling Union. He was saying he was wrong 21 years ago.

    1. To me, it didn't smack of a real apology. It was as if he just rehashed his gripes with the school and tacked on a title that said "I'm Sorry." If anything, he is saying that up until Union won the Cleary Cup last year, his position was in the right. And again, I can't stress this enough: I respect his right to publish whatever he wants. I'm upset that many will read this and assume this to be Gospel, when he manipulates and purposely leaves out large chunks of truth.

  5. When I get back home Upstate this weekend, I'll have to find the two-page story I wrote about 14 years ago about the late-1970s drama that played out concerning the hockey program back then. I think the history is important here in recognizing that this was not a no-brainer scenario for Union in 1990/1991 (when the offer was made by the ECAC because Army was exiting the conference). When I was in school from 1994 until I wrote that article as Editor of the Concordy, I never knew of the controversies (a word which I remember misspelling after an all-nighter editing that week's paper -- an error I still cringe about to this day). People don't understand why Roger Hull had a certain insistance about no scholarships and why that, ultimately, the Union/ECAC decision was an all-or-nothing occasion regardless of the implementation (I can't see any other scenario whereby Union would have entered Division I hockey after that offer, even with the UVM move to Hockey East last decade, since several other teams would have been in play there with the growth of the sport).

    Let me say it without hesitation: Union was a college on the brink in the late 1970s because of Ned Harkness and college hockey (according to everyone I interviewed for that story). The school was basically expelled from the NESCAC because of the hockey program. Internal investigations of the program and the academics surrounding it got several people in trouble and the President eventually ousted. If not for Charlie Morrison's ability to soothe the situation as coach in the 1980s, Dick Sakala's ability to help regroup the scenario when he came in as AD during the late 1970s through the ultimate 1991 decision and Roger Hull's open mind to listen to Dick Sakala's news about the ECAC offer when Hull was freshly installed as President of Union, this would not be happening for Union right now. People can disagree about the implementation of the program (e.g., no scholarships), but the history matters here greatly. I am no Roger Hull apologist, so take this as a truly honest assessment. So, while I understand some of the dislike of Matt's article, the story behind the story is something we should never forget.

    I think we all are behind the program, as I watch the semifinal game right now -- so I believe Matt's article is an apology that provides context that many people don't realize. Keep an open mind when you read such assessments because there's a lot of meaty history from which we can learn and that we can share to later Union generations.

    - Frank Rossi ('98, "Voice of Union Football" on WABY)

  6. This gutter man, damn auto correct, Futterman guy is a heartless piece of you what. Great Response Zach!

  7. As a graduate of a university that never produced a U.S. President, (I'm jealous) but did once get to the Frozen Four (Brown in the late 1970's), I found Futterman to be funny and self-effacing. He did compare himself to John Scully, clearly admitting he made a mistake. And then yes, he made more mistakes, by not giving a rounded picture of Union.

    I followed the link from the WSJ site to here, and read your comments because it's a great story about Union's success. I was always aware of Union, and understand that it is a great college with a great tradition. That said, it's not a research institution like Harvard. Being in the same sports league doesn't change that. Union probably belongs in the NESCAC. But if my kid (who does go to a NESCAC college) had wanted to go to Union for a liberal arts education, I'd have been all for it.