July 31, 2003
In the last two months of extensive, sometimes acrimonious, public debate about the future of the Tulane athletics program, the university and its president, Scott Cowen, have become a lightning rod for a national debate on intercollegiate athletics.
Inside Tulane talks to the president on how these issues resonate closer to home, within the Tulane community.
Inside Tulane: How did the athletics review process fit in with the whole sequence of strategic planning?
Scott Cowen: This was the final piece. If you remember, when we put the strategic plan together in my second year, we said we would review intercollegiate athletics in three years after the academic plan was completed. The academic plan is in its third year of implementation and this was the year for athletics to be reviewed.
Inside: When did the review begin?
Cowen: It started in May 2002, and it had two phases. Phase I, which was from May to December, was dedicated to educating the Tulane Board on intercollegiate athletics in America. We never talked about Tulane athletics during this period. The board focused its attention on learning the fundamentals of athletics. We reviewed all the various athletics divisions, the pros/cons of each division as well as the financial implications of various divisional options. The review of athletics at Tulane really began in January with the creation of the ad hoc committee on intercollegiate athletics chaired by board member Phil Greer.
Inside: A lot was made of the fact that despite your very public support for Tulane athletics you were willing to seriously entertain the idea of radically changing the program. Are they mutually exclusive positions?
Cowen: I'm a big fan of athletics and always will be. But I've always said that, first and foremost, I'm president of the university and in that regard I am accountable for the welfare of the entire university. It is my responsibility to highlight issues of significance to the university's future regardless of how provocative and difficult the issue may be.
Inside: What is your role in the "Think Green" campaign?
Cowen: Well, first of all, I embrace and support the decision we made and I will work with the athletics department to implement the plan to make it financially viable on a sustainable basis. In this capacity, I will assist athletics as I do all other parts of the university to achieve their goals, including fundraising. The "Think Green" campaign is off to a great start, and I will do what I can to help Rick Dickson and the rest of the department maintain the momentum. (See related story).
Inside: Have you heard from faculty on this? If so, what have they told you?
Cowen: Everybody has different opinions of what they would like to have seen happen. The faculty I've spoken with understand the rationale behind the decision. I think they are pleased that there are clear benchmarks and expectations for athletics as there are for all of the units of the university. The decision was not an endorsement of the status quo, and I believe people understand and appreciate this fact. I also think the faculty, staff and students are pleased that we are getting such favorable national attention for having done the review and for taking a stand on the issues plaguing Division I-A athletics.
Inside: Beyond the fact that the athletics department can run no more than a $2 million deficit by 2007, what are the benchmarks?
Cowen: We have a plan that includes yearly expectations for ticket sales, fundraising and expense reductions to bring the financial performance of the department within an acceptable subsidy by the end of fiscal year 2007. The targeted deficit will decrease each year between now and 2007.
Inside: Why was the athletics review process kept as a private matter for so long?
Cowen: We always envisioned that there would be a public phase to the process. But the timing of that public phase was critical because if it came too early in the process, the ad-hoc committee, which was formed in January, would not have been up to speed on the issues. Second, if the public phase had been conducted too early it would have occurred during a cycle in the calendar that would have had an adverse effect on athletics and recruiting. So we planned a public phase in the latter part of April and May. Unfortunately, news of the review became public before we had the opportunity to finalize and implement a plan for the public phase. Once the information about the review was made public, pre-empting our planned public phase, we established a Web site, published every e-mail and letter sent to us, held public forums with the transcripts made available, put facts and figures on the Web site to inform people of the situation and made everything available to everyone. We wound up doing everything we had planned to do as part of our public phase. There was no intent to keep the process quiet, but the timing of the announcement of the review was critical, given the complexity of the issues involved.
Inside: The story played in the media largely as one about athletics. Were there larger issues about Tulane that were missed?
Cowen: I always felt that the story was about determining the appropriate role for intercollegiate athletics on a college campus given the mission and goals of the university and the resources that it has. This wasn't about whether we liked or disliked intercollegiate athletics. To a person, everyone on the board is a believer in intercollegiate athletics. This was always about making Tulane University stronger and better given its mission and aspirations.
Inside: The issue really hit a nerve with the local community. Did that surprise you?
Cowen: What surprised me was that the community had such passion and commitment given the fact that people, whether they are alumni, students or friends of the university, have not previously supported Tulane athletics by coming to games or by giving money. I now think the community will back its passion and commitment with sustainable financial support and not take athletics at Tulane for granted.
Inside: Why do you think the fans reacted in such surprising way?
Cowen: Someone made an interesting analogy to me. He said it's like the streetcar in New Orleans. Relatively few New Orleanians ever ride the streetcar and many take it for granted. But if they ever tried to take that streetcar away, we'd all be upset about it because it is an integral part of the community and its culture. So that's how people feel about athletics. I do believe all that passion and commitment displayed in the last two months of the process will translate into sustainable support.
Inside: Why have you decided to take the national role of intercollegiate athletics reformer?
Cowen: During the athletics review process, I learned a lot about the changing landscape of Division I-A athletics. I learned about the Bowl Championship Series, the NCAA, Title IX and the commercialization of intercollegiate athletics. The more I learned about the landscape of Division I-A athletics, the more I got concerned about the future and role of athletics in our universities, in general. I also learned why and how the current landscape was negatively impacting Tulane University and almost caused us to be a victim of an increasingly unworkable system. I believe Tulane athletics is worth fighting for, so we must change the system if we are to survive.
Inside: What were the lowest and highest points in the last three months?
Cowen: I have to say the lowest points were the few times in the process where I felt that people had really lost sight of what we were trying to accomplish, which was always about trying to make Tulane University stronger and better. As part of this low point, I was also disappointed that a few people would actually suggest that we once again become a more local or regional university simply to build a fan base over time. This short-sightedness really dismayed me and others who are so proud of Tulane's national reputation and what it does for the city and state. The high point was the feeling of pride for doing this review, reaching the conclusion we did and receiving such positive national publicity for having undertaken such a difficult task. This review will lead to a better and stronger Tulane University and that gratifies me.
Despite the fact that it was a difficult process at times, I am so proud and pleased with the board that it undertook the review. The board stayed the course for the year. I also believe the decision it made was the right one for everybody concerned. And I am certainly very pleased with the national acclaim Tulane University is getting as a result of its efforts. It's been phenomenal, and it is casting us as a leader in higher education. We undertook the review, we made a decision, we articulated our expectations and we clearly communicated to a national audience about the role of academics and the role of intercollegiate athletics at a major research university.
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