War of Words Over Sports

In dueling op-eds, faculty leaders and president at Oregon debate role of athletics in university's perceived academic deterioration.
January 18, 2007

As leaders of the national faculty sports reform group known as the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, James Earl and Nathan Tublitz have adopted a go-along-to-get-along approach in which they are trying to work within the confines of the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the college sports establishment to achieve their goals.

The approach has earned them a seat at the table that has largely eluded other -- typically more aggressive and combative -- faculty-led efforts to instigate meaningful change in college sports. Whether it will ultimately accomplish anything, it is too early to tell, but for now, the strategy seems to be working.
Frustrated by the situation on their own University of Oregon campus, though, Tublitz, a professor of biology, and Earl, an English professor, have in recent days taken a very different, and more confrontational, approach to the faculty role in local athletics issues. In a sharply worded letter that appeared last weekend on the op-ed page of the local newspaper, the Register-Guard, they and 90 other senior faculty members, argued that the university is overspending on sports at a time when its academic programs are deteriorating from financial starvation.

The authors said they were motivated by some recent developments, including a $2 million contract buyout for the university’s former athletics director and the construction of a new $4 million academic center exclusively for athletes.

But those current examples are merely suggestive of deeper problems of much longer standing, they argued. The professors laid out a list of indicators that they say show the university to be in decline – slipping academic rankings, faculty salaries that are the lowest among leading research universities, ebbing graduate enrollments -- and framed that situation in the context of what they describe as a misplaced overemphasis on sports.

“As professors at the university, we find it increasingly hard to tell whether the UO is an academic research and teaching institution devoted to the education of our state’s students, or a minor league training ground for elite athletes,” they write. “Academic departments struggle to make ends meet because of repeated budget cuts, but the president allows lavish spending by the athletic department. These actions have consequences for our students and faculty, and the university’s academic stature.”

Perhaps the most telling sign of the misplaced priorities, in the eyes of the faculty letter writers, is the fact that a third of the targeted funds from the university’s $600 million fund raising campaign is destined to go to athletics, a proportion that the professors say is “double the national norm.”

The professors’ letter said the faculty had put together a plan to improve Oregon’s academic quality, but that the university probably lacked the funds to afford it. It suggests one possible source for the money: a “tax” on sports tickets or donations to athletics that would be earmarked for academic programs. Administrators have rejected such ideas in the past, but they should reconsider, the professors said. “It’s time to put academics first.”

The article obviously hit a nerve. Two days later, the Register-Guard published a reply from President Dave Frohnmayer, which acknowledged “threats to the quality of our institution” but suggested that the university was doing all it could to combat them and that athletics was not to blame. A debate that pits athletics against academics is “spurious,” he said. “To argue that one must choose academic excellence or athletic excellence is an oversimplification.”

While he took issue with the professors’ overall theme of overemphasis on athletics at the cost of academic programs, the president did not challenge many of their specific points. He acknowledged that the new academic center would benefit athletes, but noted that private donors had come up with the funds for that. And while Frohnmayer emphasized the many academic needs that would be met by the $600 million fund raising campaign – listing the faculty endowments, scholarship funds and other uses to which the funds would be put -- he did not contest the fact that $200 million would go to athletics. 

Earl, one of the authors of the professors' letter, said they hoped their words would guide Frohnmayer and other university administrators as they hired a new athletics director, decided whether to undertake a proposed new basketball arena, and considered other big-ticket spending on the sports program (which, Frohnmayer noted in his op-ed, is one of a relative few in the country that fully supports itself). "The president is deeply involved in those decisions, and he has now heard an extremely strong statement from his faculty about where they stand on this stuff," Earl said.



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