WASHINGTON -- The very morning that the man whose actions brought down top administrators at Pennsylvania State University was being condemned to at least 30 years in prison for child abuse, critics of big-time collegiate athletics gathered here were discussing the role -- or lack thereof -- of university governing boards in sports programs.
In documenting the many failings revealed by the abuse scandal at Penn State, the report  by Louis J. Freeh documented the faults of the university's former president, Graham Spanier -- among them, neglecting to adequately alert the 32-member Board of Trustees about red flags regarding former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
But equally or even more so at fault, the report said, was the board itself, whose trustees failed to ask questions of Spanier or themselves, such as whether they should conduct an internal investigation. They lacked the necessary structures even to make sure they got the information they needed to properly assess and address potential risks, the report said .
And so officials from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges recognized the “crisis” at Penn State and role the board played in it, as they presented the findings of a new survey and report  on board responsibilities for intercollegiate athletics here Wednesday at a meeting of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
“[We] cannot limit board authority to be excluded from college sports,” AGB President Richard D. Legon told the group of college presidents, athletics experts and journalists. “Athletics are too much a part of how Americans view higher education, the costs are too significant and the risk associated with it is too great.”
Hoping to assess whether boards have the necessary policies in place, and whether they actually follow best practices as they relate to athletics oversight, AGB surveyed 143 presidents and board chairs in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I. Despite the fact that almost all presidents said athletics contribute positively to their university and that the sports program is “in balance” with the academic programs – and that “by and large” board members don’t interfere with that – many boards can and should be held to a higher standard of accountability, AGB determined.
The report makes three overarching recommendations: "The governing board is ultimately accountable for athletics policy and oversight and should fulfill this fiduciary responsibility; The board should act decisively to uphold the integrity of the athletics program and its alignment with the academic mission of the institution; and The board must educate itself about its policy role and oversight of intercollegiate athletics."
Virtually unmentioned in the report, though, was what might be characterized as the other kind of trustee failure related to athletics: over-involvement, from the kind of interference that long marked the reign of Bobby Lowder as a trustee at Auburn University , to the extreme example of the Southern Methodist University football scandal in the 1980s, in which trustees (and a former governor of Texas) were involved in illicit payments to athletes.
“Most -- many -- boards do things right. On the other hand, they’re not the ones that end up on Page 1,” said John T. Casteen, director of the AGB Intercollegiate Athletics Project and president emeritus at the University of Virginia (which, of course, has had governing board woes of its own).
Casteen also cautioned that board members getting mixed up in athletics scandals have harmed many a university’s reputation. On that note, survey findings indicated 29 percent of boards said their preparation to oversee NCAA rules compliance was neutral, somewhat poor, or poor. Thirty-six percent said they are somewhat prepared.
One in four colleges did not have a policy on board responsibilities for intercollegiate athletics. Just under half of those that did have one similar to AGB’s model policy .
“Central to any efforts aimed at aligning intercollegiate athletics more closely with the educational mission of colleges and universities is the responsibility of governing boards to hold those charged with administering these programs accountable to high standards,” that document says. “Given their responsibilities for ensuring the academic integrity and reputation of the institutions they serve, boards should be engaged in the search for balance. Further, because board members occasionally have been associated with problems in some prominent football and basketball programs, it is time for all boards to re-examine how they exercise their oversight responsibilities.”
Casteen also argued that college boards should also keep track of athletics departments for financial reasons, in no small part because rates of revenue and spending continue to escalate.
“Boards have an obligation to carry out and fulfill fiduciary obligations,” Casteen said, “simply because board members are, by definition, trustees to somebody’s assets.”
Yet while 81 percent of boards said their athletic departments are not self-supporting and thus require institutional subsidies, 36 percent of boards did not financial reports submitted by their institution to the NCAA and more than one in four said the board “is not well-informed” on athletics revenues and expenditures, nor institutional support.
Casteen also commented that few boards are informed in advance – or even engaged – about conversations surrounding conference realignment.
“One can argue that information and knowledge is not evenly distributed among all the players,” Casteen said, “but it’s hard to argue that the fiduciaries with ultimate accountability should not have a role.”
The survey also inquired into how boards monitor athletes’ well-being, and found that two in three do not have sufficient information to oversee declared academic majors of athletes (despite athletes clustering into certain majors causing problems for universities in recent high-profile cases ). Further, 16 percent do not receive teams’ Academic Progress Rates, which measure classroom progress and retention .
Over all, AGB’s plea to colleges was this: “Simply to acknowledge what’s true: Athletics is not an island. The governing board is ultimately accountable” for athletics policy and oversight. But the association also recommended that boards increase their collective knowledge of NCAA rules and standards; undergo annual, public, education about compliance and practices within their own institutions; have policies to respond to crises in place before something goes wrong; and require transparent relationships between presidents and trustees.
“The truth is, the alignment of [athletics and the academic mission] is often imperfect,” Casteen said, “especially when athletics is off in a corner and not being discussed at the university.”