Ignorance or Bliss -- or Both?

Survey of faculty attitudes on college sports finds disengagement from athletics governance. Is that because professors feel shut out, or don't think things are so bad?
October 10, 2007

Numerous groups are working at the national level to try to get college and university faculty members more involved in overseeing their campus sports programs, given the widely accepted premise that too much compromise -- academic, financial and otherwise -- occurs in too many programs. "It is increasingly clear that national sports reform cannot be implemented without the strong support of and leadership by faculty," the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, an alliance of faculty senates interested in changing big-time college athletics, said in a June report. That message has echoed arguments by the Drake Group and other faculty-led efforts, and calls have come from other quarters, too, including the National Collegiate Athletic Association's own task force of college presidents, which (while bemoaning the "uninformed" and "biased" views of many professors, urged faculties to be "as fully engaged in providing advice on planning and financial issues in athletics [as they are in] other parts of the campus.”

The push is occurring because professors on most campuses clearly aren't as involved in sports issues as they are in other campus matters. A new survey of more than 2,000 faculty members at colleges that play big-time sports largely confirms that anecdotal perception, and offers several reasons why. Some professors are just too busy with what they see as their primary duties, teaching and research. Some plainly believe that they can't make a difference, because faculty voices are ignored by athletic and other administrators on their campuses or because college athletics are too far gone. And some -- hold on to your seats -- don't seem inclined to get involved because they think the sports programs on their campuses are behaving just fine, thank you very much.

Those are some of the 30,000-foot conclusions of the extensive survey conducted by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which has been calling for greater faculty involvement in sports governance for going on two decades. The commission released the survey in advance of a daylong faculty summit it is holding Monday in Washington, and the study should give participants something solid to talk about.

One of the summit's stated goals is to ascertain "whether [faculty members] are adequately engaged with issues affecting academics and athletics." That may well depend on one's definition of "adequately," but the survey concludes that as a general rule, professors may be concerned about sports issues on their campuses, but are not particularly engaged in them. Although nearly half of those surveyed say they believe their colleagues are "interested" in issues of athletics governance, a surprising proportion of professors surveyed express ignorance about or disinterest in many of the key issues involving sports governance on most campuses.

More than 40 percent respondents said they did not know whether faculty members were involved in decisions about admitting athletes outside the regular admissions process. (More than half, meanwhile, said they had no opinion about the significant role that coaches on many campuses do play in those "special admissions" procedures.) A majority said they had no sense of the academic standards their colleges required of those who tutor athletes. Nearly 40 percent said they did not know whether their colleges financially subsidized the sports programs (almost all colleges and universities do, even in the big time). When asked to rank the priorities of campus faculty governance groups, athletics finished 12th of 13, ahead of fraternity and sorority life but behind such issues as commercialization of research, gender equity, undergraduate majors and, of course, faculty salaries.

In addition, some of the things faculty members think they know reveal a different kind of ignorance. Half of them, for example, say they believe that success in intercollegiate athletics attracts donations from alumni and corporations for academic and other non-athletic purposes, a myth that has been widely debunked.

The idea that the average faculty member might not be knowledgeable about or care about his or her campus's policies on athletics may not be shocking, given how immersed many professors are day to day in their disciplines and departments. But those surveyed by the Knight Commission are not your rank and file faculty members; the survey sought responses primarily from professors who are involved in campus affairs, with 78 percent participating in faculty governance and 14 percent of those involved directly in sports governance.

While the survey offers solid evidence of professors' distance from or disdain for the oversight of their sports programs, it is much less clearcut about the reasons for it. Some of the answers suggest that faculty members feel shut out of athletics governance on their campuses:

  • Half of respondents say that decisions about sports programs are "driven by the priorities of an entertainment industry that is not invested in my university's academic mission."
  • Forty-two percent say they are "dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied" with the "extent to which faculty input informs administrative decisions related to intercollegiate athletics (less than 25 percent are satisfied or very satisfied).
  • Two in five say faculty governance roles regarding athletics are "ill defined."
  • Forty-four percent are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the "range of faculty perspectives considered" when university administrators formulate their positions on athletics.
  • Thirty-five percent say faculty athletic committees get the information they need from administrators to judge the quality of the educational experiences of athletes.

Those data suggest a faculty body that believes athletics departments run roughshod over academic and faculty priorities and needs. But the survey also offers evidence that many instructors rather like the way their sports programs are overseen.

Fifty-six percent of those surveyed say that their athletics programs are "clean," meaning free of significant violations and academic abuses. More are satisfied than dissatisfied with the level of presidential and administrative oversight of their sports departments. Half say they believe their institution's academic standards do not need to be lowered to achieve succeed in sports. And 61 percent say athletes are motivated and academically prepared enough to earn their degrees (less so for football and basketball players).

The answers also vary widely by institution type; the commission's thorough analysis also finds that faculty members tend to be most worried about the conduct of the sports programs at institutions that are strongly competitive athletically and less academically rigorous, while professors at the most academically competitive and least athletically successful institutions are more satisfied with athletics governance and athletes' academic performance, but worry about finances.

Murray Sperber, a now-retired English professor at Indiana University who had a side career as critic of Bob Knight and college sports generally, said he is not surprised at the survey's finding of a lack of faculty involvement in sports governance and interest in sports issues, for a variety of reasons. "Some are just generally ignorant, because they're way too busy in their labs to be watching football, and others choose to steer clear, because there aren't any rewards for faculty becoming fully informed or exercised on this," said Sperber. He speaks from experience, having had his own promotion to full professor delayed for years, in part, because he spoke out about college sports.

But many other professors, particularly outside the liberal arts fields, are much more supportive of athletics programs, "liking it the way it is" and supporting the commercial thrust, Sperber said.

Richard Southall, an assistant professor of health and sport sciences and associate director of the Drake Group, which promotes faculty involvement in athletics from a generally critical perspective, said he believes that most faculty members "are like a lot of other people -- they recognize that there's some sort of disconnect between big-time college sport and the educational enterprise, but they don't know what to do about it, and they're just like, well, I'm going to ignore it." He added: "There's an apathy that sets in, because they feel like governance is out of their hands."

R. Gerald Turner, president of Southern Methodist University and co-chair of the Knight Commission, said the survey "suggests that there's quite a bit of work ahead" if groups like his are going to succeed in their quest to get faculty members to pay more attention to the conduct of sports programs on their campuses. Turner said he thought the timing was good, though, for a renewed push, because the NCAA's own academic reform efforts are shifting from areas that are generally not the domain of faculty members -- academic requirements for athletes as they come out of high school and the standards for remaining athletically eligible -- to "making sure that the degrees they get are really worthy."

"The academic program is the purview of the faculty," and it's going to be up to them to help make sure that athletes on their campuses are getting meaningful degrees, Turner said.

Of course, the commission's survey suggests that there is a long way to go on that front, too. Nearly half of all respondents said they did not know whether "a faculty committee on my campus regularly monitors the educational soundness of student-athletes' programs of study."

On many campuses, Turner and Sperber noted, no faculty committee plays that role.


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