The Chronicle of Higher Education - Point of View
January 7, 2005
I was present at a recent athletics forum when the Rev. Edward A. Malloy, the president of the University of Notre Dame, expressed dismay over his institution's firing of the head football coach with two years left on his contract. Apparently the coach had done everything right on and off the field -- except win a national championship.
Father Malloy's comments reminded me of my own past two years as a university president, which have been challenging, eye-opening, disillusioning and, yet, hopeful -- all because of intercollegiate athletics.
In 2002 Tulane University's board of trustees embarked on a yearlong study to determine how the university's Division I-A athletics program supported its strategic goal of academic excellence. After a controversial review, the trustees decided to continue our participation in the program, albeit with clearly established expectations within the university's academic and financial plan. Before reaching its decision, however, the board became disheartened by the overall state of Division I-A athletics and its adverse effect on many universities -- not just Tulane.
Prompted by our review, I began working with presidents of other universities with Division I-A programs that do not compete in the year-end Bowl Championship Series to confront the escalating costs of intercollegiate athletics, the need for academic reform, and marketing and equity issues related to the BCS. Thanks to our joint efforts, we have made significant progress, yet we have only begun to scratch the surface of what must be done to position athletics properly within our institutions. Meanwhile, because of my intensive sojourn into big-time athletics I have learned a number of lessons that might be relevant to others:
Trustees should regularly and objectively review athletic programs. Even though the budget for athletics is a small fraction of a university's total budget, the presence and performance of sports teams can inappropriately influence the institution's public image. Witness how the reputations of otherwise well-respected institutions like the Universities of Colorado and Georgia have been tarnished by athletics scandals. The visibility of athletics, combined with its emotional and psychological impact on fans, can make it almost impossible to have intelligent, balanced discussions about it. Otherwise thoughtful people can become irrational, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the university to apply the same scrutiny to athletics that it applies to academics.
Yet for the very reason that sports have such an impact on the public perception of our universities' academic credibility, they should be thoroughly and objectively reviewed at the highest level of institutional authority on a periodic basis, ideally every 5 to 10 years. Such a well-defined, regularly scheduled process will establish in advance the areas to be evaluated and the standards to be met, and create continual accountability in an athletics program.
At Tulane, trustees conduct our reviews, but other institutions, like Rice University, have used outside consultants. A university's culture should determine who will perform the evaluation, but regardless of the approach, it should be led by trustees.
Decisions about athletics should be based on facts, not myths. Our universities invest huge amounts of resources in athletics under the false belief that success in sports may enhance the academic reputation of the institution, improve fund raising, or make athletics a profitable enterprise. Yet few Division I-A athletics programs generate a financial surplus, and deficits are increasing every year at most universities.
Investments in sports without regard to how they affect the overall welfare of a university are misguided, if not downright irresponsible. As educators, we should study and understand the empirical evidence that demonstrates the real impact athletics has on our institutions, then educate our internal and external constituencies -- especially our boards -- about those findings. To render sound judgments about college sports, trustees should be acquainted with the hard financial facts and separate them from the emotional attachment they often feel for a university's sports teams. Data-driven decision making will go a long way toward debunking the mythology that drives behavior about athletics.
Presidential involvement must be consistent and strong. For too long, presidents have delegated responsibility for athletics to conference commissioners and athletics directors who, to their credit, did what they were asked: They increased their institutions' visibility, maximized revenues to try to offset increasing costs, and captured the hearts and minds of alumni and fans. Yet while commissioners and athletics directors have a role to play, presidents, in consultation with those on and off their campuses, must establish the overall direction and key policies that guide athletics programs.
Presidents must insist that the primary criterion used in decision making is the overall welfare of the academic core of our institutions. When we make maximizing revenue a primary goal, we undermine the values that distinguish universities from other organizations. The decisions by Clemson University and the University of South Carolina not to participate in bowl games, following a brawl between their teams at their annual game, is a good example of foregoing revenue and visibility for the sake of institutional integrity.
Doing the right thing may require presidents, including me, to "just say no" to those waving money before us or wanting universities to continue unrealistic spending in the name of competitiveness. We must diminish the influence of TV networks and commercial sponsors over college sports. Our institutions must decide how and by whom our programs will be marketed to the public, even if that means gaining less revenue and reducing our visibility. Recently the presidents of the University of Michigan and Ohio State University refused to allow corporate sponsorship of their high-profile annual game. That bold decision is a step in the right direction.
Financial, moral, and ethical transparency in how we account for and manage our athletics programs is critical to ensuring that they assume the proper role within our universities.
In many ways, these points are self-evident. The challenge for presidents is to live by such principles and have them shape everyday decisions at the local and national level. For example, in the coming year, presidents will probably decide whether or not to add a permanent 12th game to the regular football season, while rejecting a Division-IA playoff system to crown a national champion, on grounds that the playoff lengthens the season and is too demanding on players. How presidents make that decision will demonstrate whether we have the ability to be consistent in our actions and messages about intercollegiate athletics.
Faculty members can make a difference. On many campuses, faculty members are seen as biased critics unable to see the benefits of athletics. But most professors I encounter have a healthy, balanced view of college sports and are often simply frustrated by their inability to help change a system that they see corroding their universities' academic values. Such frustrations can lead to diametrically opposed, yet similarly counterproductive behaviors: total disengagement, or, at the other extreme, overly aggressive and unrealistic attempts to diminish or even eliminate athletics.
Faculty members should become more knowledgeable about the positive benefits that athletics can bring to a campus. At the same time, they should work with administrators to establish the standards and values that govern their sports programs, and should be encouraged to closely monitor and bring to light any issues that undermine them.
For example, the National Collegiate Athletic Association recently enacted academic-reform legislation to improve the continuing eligibility and graduation rates of athletes. On the surface, the legislation promises to improve athletes' academic performance and hold universities accountable for their intellectual progress. However, if not closely monitored, the law could lead to unintended consequences, like a further dilution of the curricular requirements for athletes so they remain eligible. Curriculum standards must be upheld, and professors must be guardians of those standards and speak up loudly if a university veers off course.
The NCAA is the key to the future. If athletics is to be properly positioned in higher education, there can be only one governing body, with conferences and individual universities playing a subordinate role for the greater good. Some past NCAA presidents have been hesitant to use their position as a bully pulpit because strong and visionary stances, especially those contrary to popular opinion, have been more likely to get them removed from office than to create change. The bureaucratic nature of the NCAA governance system also makes it difficult to create fundamental reforms in a timely fashion.
Yet even though it took a series of scandals to bring it about, the recent success with recruiting reform may offer a glimmer of hope. If you read the NCAA's new strategic plan, you will see that it embodies the right principles, values, and goals. The challenge is to get the membership to live and act consistently within that framework, especially by taking charge of postseason play in football -- now controlled by conferences, in cooperation with TV networks, corporate sponsors, and bowls. Such a move would result in the loss of power for some Division I-A institutions and conferences but could unify the governance of college athletics and bring consistency to reform efforts.
While I've long been a strong proponent of college athletics, my recent experiences have left me concerned about our collective will to take the steps necessary to solve our problems. It may be too late for the radical transformation that we need; we may continue to show just incremental improvement motivated by crises rather than vision. Yet I do have hope because of the sound decisions of individual universities and the NCAA's recent efforts at reform. If each president and institution -- one by one -- works to establish the right direction locally and within its own conference, and the NCAA remains a forceful voice for change, academics and athletics can become a winning combination for us all.
Scott S. Cowen is president of Tulane University.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 51, Issue 18, Page B20
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