By David Hill
David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.
Athletic Management, 14.3, April/May 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1403/faculty.htm
Things were going well for University of Oregon athletics in late 2001--at least from a distance. The football team was in contention for a national title and quarterback Joey Harrington was a top Heisman Trophy candidate. The men's basketball team was about to break into the Top 20. The women's squad had a new coach at its helm. And a plan was in place to expand the football team's home venue, Autzen Stadium.
On campus, however, the picture wasn't so pleasant. Faculty members were complaining vocally about the wisdom of spending $90 million on the stadium expansion at a time when other parts of the university were facing budget cuts. In June, the outgoing president of the University Senate, James Earl, had a piece published in The NCAA News questioning the university's fiscal priorities. Some members of Oregon's faculty were taking national an issue that had been simmering in Eugene for years.
At that point, Athletic Director Bill Moos had a strategic decision to make: let central administration worry about the critics, or try to build bridges himself. He chose the latter and has not looked back since.
Moos met with some of the most outspoken critics, as well as university academic and administrative leaders, and talked things out. No one gave up their ground, but they did come to better understand one another. An agreement was reached to phase out, over three years, the university's $2 million worth of funding for intercollegiate athletics. Much of the savings will go toward enhancing the salaries of faculty, who had complained that inadequate pay was hurting the university's ability to attract and keep academic talent. The university also established the Task Force on Athletics to continue the discussion and advise President Dave Frohnmayer (who is also the Pac-10 representative to the NCAA Board of Directors) on athletics matters.
The task force, which consists of faculty members, student-athletes, athletic department officials, students, and central administrators, hasn't quieted critics. Nor has it stopped stadium expansion plans. But those involved are nonetheless rejoicing at its birth.
"I think it has raised the level of conversation on this campus with the hope that we can come to a consensus,"says Nathan Tublitz, an Oregon biology professor and current President of the University Senate. "I don't think it's blunted any of the issues, nor has it stopped the critics from raising their concerns. It's not designed to do that. It's designed, in fact, to encourage conversation. I think it's sent a message to the university community that this is an important issue worthy of a broad university discussion.”
Adds Moos: "I think it's going to be very healthy, and I'm excited about being out in front of these types of things."
Versions of the Oregon story are being repeated across the country. Faculty members alarmed by increased spending on athletics have become more and more vocal in calling for reform. Some want their schools to downgrade athletics, leave high-profile conferences, or reduce sports spending. One national ad-hoc faculty organization proposes shutting down athletic departments' academic-support operations in favor of having them handled by the schools' main academic units (see Sidebar, "Reform Group" at the end of this article). Others suggest replacing all athletics grants-in-aid with need-based financial aid and greatly reducing or eliminating missed class time.
No matter the details of calls for reform, how to respond can be a critical issue for athletic directors. With rising costs and a slowed economy, pressure will increase on athletic departments to curtail spending, even for those who produce most of their revenue. In such an environment, athletic directors need to have a game plan--they need to be prepared for the possibility that faculty on their campuses will join the vocal reform movement.
Should athletic directors lay low and let university administrators take the heat, or should they welcome questions head-on? Should they work through established channels or build one-on-one relationships? Can and should they do anything to preempt faculty complaints? What if the issues faculty members raise are legitimate? What do you do when confronted by a zealot who just won't quit until gyms are darkened and fields are dug up for labs and libraries? What follows is a look at how the call can be met at institutions small, medium, and large.
Hearing It Out
As planning was progressing for the stadium expansion, the Oregon athletic department announced that the annual football game with rival Oregon State would be moved from mid-November to early December for television purposes. This would garner the school $600,000 and valuable exposure, but also meant the game would be played on the Saturday before final exams were to start. Many faculty members complained that all students, not just football players, would be needlessly distracted from studies by the approach of one of the campus' biggest annual events. Moos withstood substantial criticism. But the affair was salt in an already open wound. The faculty's real concern was about athletic spending.
While the money for the stadium would come from athletics fund-raising and not from academics, faculty members worried that priorities were getting skewed, says Earl, an English professor at UO, who penned The NCAA News article. Earl's concern was not with typical scandal fodder such as academic cheating or boosters paying athletes, but with the big picture.
"We are talking about mega issues,"Earl says, "not management issues--recruiting, classroom meetings, or something like that. This is a larger inquiry into the role of sports in higher education.”
While Earl was president of the University Senate, which at Oregon represents students and staff as well as faculty, it adopted a resolution calling on Frohnmayer to examine the role of athletics on campus, and to curtail commercialization and sports' infringement on academic schedules. Other universities throughout the nation have taken the issue up or are considering comparable resolutions. And seven other Pac-10 faculty senates have already adopted similar statements.
But that was almost a year ago, and Moos feels that opening the lines of communication has helped the situation on his campus immensely. The Athletics Task Force has been key.
"I think it is going to serve as a model for other schools around the country,"says Moos. "We [the task force] are talking in a broader sense about the issues of today and how they relate to our campus and the rapport between academics and athletics--the big issues that pertain to NCAA member institutions.”
But the new task force is only part of Moos' approach to working with faculty. He has also spoken to the University Senate, mainly about the stadium expansion. He and the university administration believe that the need and benefits of the added seats and luxury boxes made the price worthwhile. Getting this across is the heart of his message to faculty.
"I don't approach it as selling, and I don't approach it as defending athletics,"Moos says. "I think it's more about educating them as to what intercollegiate athletics is about and how I and others feel that it benefits the institution. At the same time, I listen to their concerns that, in a larger context, they feel it may harm higher education.”
Identify Issues Early
Although the issues were different, a special faculty-athletics committee also was formed at Swarthmore College in 1999 when concerns arose over both the competitiveness of the school's NCAA Division III football team and the admissions process for athletes, particularly football players. It was becoming clear to many on the suburban Philadelphia campus that Swarthmore would not be able to field a competitive football team without setting aside more slots in its freshman classes for athletes than the highly selective college wanted to, particularly in light of other admissions goals such as racial, economic, and geographic diversity.
The college had a standing Committee on Physical Education and Athletics, but its governing Board of Managers formed a new panel--made up of board members, faculty, Athletic Director Robert Williams, student-athletes, and other students--specifically to come up with answers to persistent athletics-related questions. Eventually, it recommended ending football as well as wrestling and varsity badminton.
The Athletics Review Committee still exists and reports periodically to the college president and trustees, Williams says. It and the standing athletics committee are the prime ways Swarthmore hashes out any issues faculty may have with athletics, he adds. More recently, the Athletics Review Committee has been developing guidelines on how athletes are to make up work missed for contests.
Williams says it's important to have well-respected people leading the committees. For example, Swarthmore's faculty athletics representative is its provost, the school's top academic official.
"We don't usually have someone standing up and asking for athletic reform,"Williams says. "We try to identify those kinds of issues early so that they can be dealt with through the Committee on Physical Education and Athletics and through our Athletics Review Committee. Those outspoken people who are looking for athletic reform are not that active at this point because it's handled pretty well and we're able to kind of nip things in the bud.”
Williams quickly adds, however, that what works at Swarthmore, with its extremely selective academic admissions standards, enrollment of about 1,400, and long athletic tradition, won't necessarily work everywhere. And as anyone in administration knows, committees aren't the best way to solve every problem. That's why many athletic directors regularly make preemptive strikes in the form of building informal relationships with faculty.
Southern Methodist University Athletic Director Jim Copeland says he has spoken before the full Faculty Senate on one topic or another in most of the eight years he's been at the Dallas campus. Usually, he deals with concerns through the Faculty Athletics Council. But Copeland has also tried other, more personal, means to develop relationships with faculty, be they friends or questioners of athletics.
Because he experienced varying levels of faculty involvement when he was athletic director at Utah, Virginia, and the College of William and Mary, he actively sought to make contacts when he entered his current post. "My first two years at SMU, I had a series of brown-bag lunches, where we'd invite five or six faculty members to come down,"Copeland says. "We in the athletic department would have a chance to meet them and discuss some of their concerns about athletics as well as some of the things they thought were good. It gave me a forum to express our department's views as well.
"I had other faculty members decide who would come,"he continues. "The only criterion I had was that we have a good mix of faculty members--those who had showed a proclivity to be positive about athletics, and those who may not have.”
Once a pattern of interaction is established, maintenance becomes easier. Today the lunches at SMU are sporadic, and Copeland says that's because he has built a strong network of supporters among the SMU faculty, primarily through regular contacts, formal and informal.
"Every year we have some new faculty members on the Athletics Council, so I get to know those people,"Copeland says. "And then I've dealt with the presidents of the Faculty Senate from time to time, who change every year, too, as well as the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate.”
In the fall of 2001, SMU's Faculty Senate adopted a reform resolution similar to that at Oregon and calling for no growth in the university athletics appropriation. The resolution didn't blindside Copeland, thanks to previous discussions and relationship-building, and is one thing Copeland says he and faculty agree on.
Copeland also uses these channels of communication when making his own policy announcements. "When I make decisions, I have to first assume that they're going to become public, and second, that they need to be defensible,"he says. "So, I will work with a faculty group, like the Athletics Council, prior to the decision becoming public. My hope is that the relationships are good enough that by the time the decision's public, the people who need to know will know what it's going to be.”
In the less-formal realm, Copeland regularly invites faculty to watch home football games from a special 12-seat box. "That's always a mix of people,"he says. "I'll have contributors in there, I'll have vendors, and I'll have faculty people. It gives me a chance to know them all on a different level.
"I think one of the places where you find chasms is between faculty members and quote-unquote boosters,"Copeland continues. "I have found when you put them together, they start to realize that neither group has horns, that they both are reasonable and have rational and justifiable points of view. It's usually been very pleasant. What becomes obvious, too, is that most of the people who support our athletics program financially support some part of the university other than athletics, and it becomes almost an epiphany for some of the faculty people to understand that.”
A Different World
At Western State College of Colorado, Athletic Director Greg Waggoner also is proactive in communicating with faculty. Along with speaking to faculty groups and having a strong faculty athletics representative, he works hard to understand their world.
It pays to remember, he says, that academics doesn't operate on a cut-and-dried business model and doesn't keep score, at least in a literal sense. "I think I can say this because I am a tenured faculty member--and it doesn't necessarily apply to all faculty and all disciplines,"Waggoner says, "but faculty in academia live in an artificial world compared to business, or certainly to athletics, where you are very quantitatively and very visibly measured every day and every week.”
It's possible to win some converts, Waggoner says, by pointing out that athletics is constantly judged, on both the scoreboard and the balance sheet. Victories and losses are public knowledge, and, at most campuses, athletics spending gets far more scrutiny than academic departments.
But understanding faculty concerns can happen only by placing yourself physically in their world from time to time. "We're busy people,"Waggoner says of athletic directors and coaches. "We're busy on weekends going out of town to our events, and we're busy fund-raising, and we're busy with summer camps. But we've got to stop being busy for a minute and get over to some other campus activity, and engage with those people. Then they see you in a different context.”
One important thing Waggoner has learned from interacting with faculty is that they always struggle for funding. Because of this, he feels it's critical for his department to stay on budget. "I don't think there's much that will upset a faculty member more than when they hear that athletics is over budget again and again,"he says.
But what should an athletic director do when faculty complaints come from people with whom he or she has not built relationships? What about faculty members who raise concerns outside formal channels?
That's when it pays to have a prepared defense. Waggoner says he's practiced articulating the case for athletics by justifying to student-government leaders his department's using a big chunk of student-fee money. He cites an economic-impact study showing that Western State sports bring about $10 million a year to the Gunnison community and contribute directly to the college's treasury in the form of athletes' tuition and fees. He also points out that sports provide a link between the college and its alumni and community.
Much of the educating that Waggoner does, he says, is replacing myths with facts. Many outside the athletic department assume athletes are on free rides, but he points out that no more than two-thirds of Mountaineer team members get athletic aid, and that among those who do, only an average of only 20 percent of their costs are covered by grants-in-aid. He also explains that typical athletic scholarships at the NCAA Division II school are comparable in amount to the stipends received by student-government officers and the students who run the campus newspaper and radio station. "Now, obviously, a lot of schools aren't going to be able to say what I can say because they've got a whole lot of kids on a whole lot of money,"says Waggoner. "So it's going to actually work against them. But here it works for us.”
He also explains that student-athletes typically earn better grades and matriculate at a higher rate than the student body as a whole. A final example he mentions is that his student-athletes are important leaders on campus, in not just the athletic arena.
To make these points resonate, the athletic department works hard to fight the pampered-jock myth. Athletic administrators and coaches strongly encourage athletes to seek leadership roles on campus. They also focus on making sure athletes have a good all-around experience so that professors can see their enthusiasm.
The Bottom Line
Of all the strategies athletic directors mention in working with faculty, the one they stress the most is getting to the bottom of a complaint. When complaints arise, says Waggoner, it's important to get beyond the conflict and listen for what the fundamental issue really is, and be prepared to act if there's a legitimate problem.
At Oregon, the biggest tensions arose when the Oregon-Oregon State football game was moved to just before finals week. But Moos had the patience to realize the real complaint was financial.
This is especially important when confronted with a faculty member who just won't quit. "At that point, what's got to happen is upper level administration has to step in and say 'This is the way it is,'"says Waggoner. "But they won't do that unless the athletic department is addressing the real issues. If you've understood the complaint and acted on it in a reasonable way, that gives you an endorsement to go on about your business and not have to worry about that anymore.”
At the same time, however, Waggoner says he tries to stay open minded about any complaints, even persistent ones. "I think there are faculty members perceived to be zealots who really aren't,"he explains. "Maybe they really have a legitimate issue that nobody wants to address because there's too much money involved--a bowl game or Final Four appearance might be affected. It's in the eyes of the beholder who's a zealot and who's just a concerned faculty member pressing a legitimate issue and won't give up.”
Reform Group Looks Inward
Faculty who want to reform collegiate athletics can only directly affect academics, but that's enough, says Jon Ericson, a founder of a group calling for changes in the relationship between sports and school.
The Drake Group, named for the university where concerned faculty members first met and where Ericson is a former provost, has developed a four-point plan for reform. The first two points would be implemented immediately, and the last two phased in:
1. Universities provide accountability of trustees, presidents, administrators, and faculty by:
• Public disclosure of the academic major, academic adviser, courses listed by academic major, general education requirements, and electives, including course GPA and instructor for all students. No student's grades will be disclosed. Or,
• For each intercollegiate athletic team, public disclosure of the courses enrolled in by team members, the average of the grades given in the course, and instructor of the course, at the end of the semester.
2. Location and control of academic counseling and support services be transferred from athletic departments to academic counseling and support available for all students.
3. Athletic contests be scheduled so as not to conflict with class attendance.
4. One-year renewable athletic scholarships be replaced with need-based financial aid, and that the term "student-athlete"be retired.
Disclosure of what courses athletes are taking is crucial, Ericson says. It will show whether athletes are serious, or being allowed to be serious, about actually pursuing a degree. If athletes are clustering in the same majors or taking the same courses or sections of courses just to remain eligible, it would eventually show up under the first proposal, he contends.
"The only way we're going to address the problem is to be honest about it, to show what we do,"Ericson says. "We tolerate [among athletes] academic standards and behavior we would never tolerate on the athletic field.”
Ericson adds that members of the Drake Group, which first met in 1999 and hammered out its proposal document in March 2000, aren't anti-athletics. In fact, many are former athletes themselves. It just seems that the virtues of athletics, including hard work, dedication, and fair play, are too often compromised when it comes to maintaining academic eligibility, he says. The plan is largely an attempt by faculty to reclaim control over academics.
"Coaches ought not be responsible for the academic conduct of their players at all,"Ericson says. "That's a faculty responsibility. Anytime an athlete is on campus who shouldn't be because of academics, that's a reflection on the provost and the deans and the faculty, not the coach.”
University of Oregon Athletic Director Bill Moos agrees with the idea of moving academic support from the athletic department's responsibility and has already implemented it at his school. "We have point persons in our department who talk with those academic counselors and advisors, and I think it's working quite well,"Moos says. "I think it's frustrating at times for the coaches, but at the same time, I think it's a good means of protection from potential problems.”
But Greg Waggoner, Athletic Director at Western State College of Colorado, worries that some academic people might lack the perspective to make the right all-around decisions. For instance, some may not realize the effect that telling a student he or she can't miss class to travel to an out-of-town contest may have on the student's teammates, who have a lot invested in the competition.
"I can see these lines getting drawn on academics more than on reality sometimes,"Waggoner says. "But it's an institution's function to self-police itself. If its coaches are exploiting student-athletes, if it's not graduating student-athletes, it's the institution that's got to draw the line.”