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I’ve been on the road a lot–two weeks ago I was in Boston, last week I was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the next week I’ll be in Detroit and DC. I haven’t gotten much writing done over this time, but what’s going on in Alabama is worth writing about. I had the opportunity to deliver a couple of talks at the University of Alabama’s Center for Race and Gender and in the process take in the Alabama vs LSU game. What’s going on in Alabama is worth serious study, but for right now I’m going to connect a few dots.

I remembered hearing about the sorority issue at the beginning of the school year, and thinking that there was a lot more going on under the surface. I thought about writing about it then, but if I put pen to paper, even on the blog, every time something related to racial politics occurred I’d never get any real work done. I was particularly interested in explaining to my friends who were members of black sororities why the issue mattered. Why should people in black sororities in particular care about a black woman who seemingly didn’t even consider joining a black sorority? Why wasn’t Delta Sigma Theta/Alpha Kappa Alpha/Zeta Phi Beta/Sigma Gamma Rho good enough?

Why indeed?

Such an approach makes a great deal of sense. But what that approach ignores is the politics involved in desegregation in general–and in this issue. To be even more specific this approach ignores The Machine.

For almost a century political power in Alabama has been concentrated in the hands of Alabama alumni connected to a semi-secret society that has its roots in white supremacy and in the Alabama greek system. Members of the Machine have played and continue to play significant roles in Alabama student government, and in local, state, and federal government. Like any political machine, The Machine doles out political patronage and exerts a great deal of public and private power over Alabama affairs. The reason fraternities and sororities at the University of Alabama have not integrated is not just because of attitudes about African Americans (although a recent UA survey suggests racist attitudes are still prevalent). Rather, fraternities and sororities have not integrated because of the political power the machine wields, power concentrated in the hands of a small group of whites who can likely trace their lineage back to the confederacy. The fear is that bringing in even one non-white woman, particularly a black woman connected to one of the most powerful black families in the state, will unravel this system, making the type of corruption that shaped the last school board election less likely.

This is something the black student was likely aware of. At the very least her family–one of the most prominent black political families in the state–probably was. This is also something that at least some of the sorority had to be aware of as well.

However it is likely that a significant number of them weren’t as invested in The Machine as their alumni members. Partially because the alumni members are adults and more intimately aware of both the history and the power at stake. But also partially because it’s more likely that many of the current members are not from Alabama.

Which brings me to the football team.

I got the opportunity to see the game in person. I know something about the type of local nationalism that comes with and through sports. I did go to Michigan.[footnote]In fact I wanted to go to Michigan in the first place because of the football team, having been a Michigan fan since I was a child.[/footnote] However over the 14 years I was at Michigan as a student, I probably attended six games tops. And I never attended any of the big rivalries games–the Ohio State games in particular were just too cold for me to care about going. So I never witnessed anything like the Roll Tide phenomenon. The ESPN video above isn’t a joke. I taped the clip below at the Alabama LSU game.

Alabama and Mississippi don’t have MLB, NFL, NBA, or NHL teams. What they do have, is college football. And they go HARD. Harder than Baltimoreans go for the Ravens. Harder than Wolverines go for Michigan. Harder than anything I’ve seen. The only thing I can compare it to is soccer outside of North America.

And Alabama football has been more successful over the past several years than most programs in the modern era. This success has transformed the university, not only bringing in a hefty $80 million a year, but causing its student population to double. Most of this new student population comes from out of state. The class of 2015 was the first class in Alabama history to have a higher percentage of out of state students than in-state students. Within three years I expect the University of Alabama to be a predominantly non-s0uthern university.

Saban drives this increase.

Two passages in the linked article above are worth quoting at length:

Head football coach Nick Saban has done the near-impossible at the University of Alabama:  orchestrated a seismic shift in the meaning of “Roll Tide.” The longtime motto used by the locals to exhort its college football team to victory has spread across the school’s campus to the registrar’s office, to new buildings for science, engineering and nursing students, and on to the wallets of increasingly generous alumni.

Powerhouse football is nothing new at the school, of course. But powerhouse football in the modern media age means, thanks to games beamed across the country on a regular basis, a national marketing platform unlike anything Bama enjoyed in Bear Bryant’s day.

The second:

But the money flowing directly from Bryant-Denny Stadium is just the start. If you think that a top college football coach earning seven figures is overpaid, think again. To appreciate just how modest Saban’s $5.3 million salary is, take a wider look around campus. Since 2007, Tuscaloosa has swelled its undergraduate ranks by 33% to over 28,000 students. Faculty count has kept pace: up 400 since 2007 to over 1,700. But it’s more than growth – it’s where the growth is coming from. According to the school, less than a third of the 2007 freshman class of 4,538 students hailed from out of state. By the fall of 2012, more than half (52%) of a freshman class of 6,397 students did. Various data from US News and the New York Times shows that the school’s out-of-state tuition cost – nearly three times higher than the rate for in-state students – rose from $18,000 to $22,950 a year during that period.

Add it all up – more students from outside Alabama paying ever-increasing premium tuition bills – and the school realized $50 million more in out-of-state tuition revenue for last fall’s incoming class than it did for the same class in 2007 ($76 million vs. $26 million). Kick in the additional $8.5 million in in-state tuition, which rose to $9,200 a year from $6,400 over the same period, and overall tuition revenue rose to $104 million from $46 million for the respective 2012 and 2007 freshman classes. And to boot, the school’s most recent capital campaign (i.e. donations from alumni and others) raised $600 million for scholarships and facilities, the most ever.

For the admissions office, more applications mean more selectivity. Six years ago, 64% of students applying to the University of Alabama were accepted. By 2012, the acceptance rate had dropped to 53%. About one in four students from the 2012 freshman class carried a 4.0 high school GPA. The class also includes 241 National Merit Scholars, more than any other public university in the U.S.

I’ve written before about neoliberalism in higher education. Even Obama’s solution to the higher education crisis reeks of it. We can see it at work here. As the state of Alabama reduces its contribution to the university system, university officials are forced to rely on other forms of income. The football program fits neatly here–indeed, given how much Saban has contributed to the university coffers he’s actually under rather than overpaid. Also fitting here is the drive to increase the student population by relying more and more on out of state students, who pay far more than in state students, but nowhere near what in-state students in places like California pay. Finally, we can also place here the desire to make the school more exclusive rather than less exclusive. The better the student quality the better their future donor pool, and the better the student quality the more value the Alabama degree provides, which will then provide even more quality students down the road.

If this trend continues, Alabama will likely become the best public school in the region, and one of the best public schools in the country.

Now what are the consequences of this move for The Machine?

As Alabama’s student population diversifies, not just racially, but geographically, the unique Deep South culture that undergirds it will gradually be replaced by something different. White students who don’t come from the Deep South are going to gradually push against what they feel to be antiquated 20th Century values. And those in The Machine will find themselves having to justify what they’d never have to give a thought to before. Further, as the funds Alabama receives are doled out to faculty within the university, people with more progressive values will find ways to use those resources to promote a very different vision of what Alabama is supposed to represent. Remember that while Alabama does have a deep confederate tradition, it simultaneously nurtured one of the most democratic movements the nation has ever seen.

I expect The Machine to continue, but I expect the University of Alabama to play a very different role in its development.

What are the consequences of this move for poor Alabamans?

Now thats a very different question.

Two years ago a mile and a half wide tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa and a 60 mile strip of Alabama. As you can see above, it still hasn’t been redeveloped. While focusing solely on attitudes renders us unable to understand the institutional power connected to sorority intake decisions, focusing solely on the University of Alabama as the site of racial politics can cause us to ignore the wider political and economic context. While the football team will likely make the University of Alabama far more representative than it ever was, it will likely exacerbate wealth inequality both within Tuscaloosa and within Alabama in general–soon the only way Alabamans will be able to go to the University of Alabama will be through some sort of legislative effort to curtail the number of out-of-state admits.

I have to say I loved my visit to Alabama. The students and the faculty were gracious and welcoming, even the ones who likely don’t have my politics. I hope to visit again soon. But there’s a lot to think through. I hope people there can spend some of the resources they have studying the changes they’re undergoing. We shouldn’t continue to treat the Deep South as a simple dependent variable in a regression equation. Roll Tide.