President's Column: A Different Kind of March Madness

By David Burge

March 19, 2018

Full disclosure, as a graduate of the University of Kansas my blood runs Crimson and Blue in March until the Jayhawks break my heart or win it all. I also work at George Mason University and regularly enjoy hearing my colleagues’ fondly reminisce about the Patriot’s Cinderella-esque run to the Final Four in 2006. For someone who is noticeably not a sports guy, this time of year is special even to me.

But there are strange things afoot this year redefining March Madness, and some of those things have nothing to do with basketball. This time feels different than others, with groundbreaking change all around us filling me with a sense of hope.

Take the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) Retrievers. Nothing on paper could have predicted the outcome of that first-round NCAA men’s basketball tournament game, where the Retrievers defeated the top-seeded University of Virginia. In doing so, a record that has existed since the beginning of the NCAA tournament was shattered as No. 16 seed team defeated a No. 1 seed.

As a fan of teams that often begin the NCAA tournament as No. 1 seeds, I can tell you that their fan-base lives in ever-present fear of being on the receiving end of a broken historical precedent. We wrap ourselves in a blanket of comfort that the pressures of history are in our favor — it gives us a sense of well-being when the score is too close for comfort. But with the UMBC win, there it was—right in front of us—and what I had told myself was a truth for the ages was busted apart.

The mascot for UMBC is a retriever named True Grit. Perhaps a reference to the John Wayne (or Jeff Bridges) film, but in the context of my 2018 life, it’s a coincidence I can’t ignore. Grit is the “center square” in our admission bingo card. The fact that a team mascot associated with that concept is squarely in the mainstream of American sports media has given me pause.

Truth be told, there’s much to reflect on these days. The media frenzy around student walkouts kicked up again this past week. Thousands of students left their classrooms to draw attention to gun violence and its effects on their learning environments. These young activists, each for reasons that are their own, took some level of personal risk in abandoning their desks for the new front line of the gun violence debate.

College/university admission offices played a small role as well. At last count, 293 admission officers have listed their admission policy for high school disciplinary actions on the NACAC registry. The presence of this list is not, inherently, history-making. The real history-maker was the statement released last week by NACAC encouraging the federal government to take meaningful steps to address gun violence in schools. That is completely new ground. I’m proud to have been a member of NACAC when the organization did what might have previously been seen as something “not in its lane.” Again, this feels new and different.

My final March Madness reflection is still fresh. Last weekend, we saw a tweet from David Hogg, one of the survivors of the Parkland, Florida shooting. Hogg, who is a key organizer of a new wave of student activism, announced on social media that he had been denied admission to yet another school. Something tells me the shockwave of this tweet was felt in the email inbox of admission deans across the country.

Responses from admission professionals included both pleas for Hogg to contact them to discuss options and tweets reflecting on his access to postsecondary counseling. As of the writing of this article, debates within social media circles large and small were still going strong. While there is no consensus of ideas, it is clear that Hogg’s situation has held up a mirror for us to reflect on our work.

And so, I’m back to where I started above, to a question of grit, and of Hogg’s predicament as a public leader of a growing movement who is simultaneously wrestling with the very familiar stress of going to college. And I’m struck by the signs of an emerging new world order where old ideas built on historical precedence are seemingly evaporating around me. What feels different about this situation is how a young person, someone who is supposed to be beholden to the grown-ups deciding his higher education destiny, has sent these very same people into a swirl of self-reflection and disagreement over how to treat his case.

Maybe these three things are unrelated; minor disruptions or statistical variations one might expect. That is possible. Or maybe the blanket of comfort found in the pressures of history are shifting in ways I couldn’t have imagined six months ago. And right in front of me, more cynical truths are being busted apart. Put in simpler terms…right now just feels different, and I’m glad that it does.

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