Assessing the Faculty Role in Sports Oversight

In wake of report on professors' aloofness from issues facing their colleges' athletics programs, panelists at a Knight Commission summit explore the reasons why.
October 16, 2007

It’s a commonly held belief that professors are far removed from the issues facing their college’s athletics program until, say, a scandal erupts that threatens the integrity of the institution. A national survey of professors released last week confirmed that a disconnect exists -- and in some cases showed a measurable level of disinterest in sports.

In the survey of more than 2,000 faculty members at 23 universities that compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's top competitive level, more than one third of the people reported being unaware of many athletics program practices and policies, and roughly the same number said they had no opinion about concerns raised by national faculty athletics reforms groups, who are calling for increased faculty involvement in athletics oversight. When asked to rank the priorities of faculty governance groups, athletics finished 12th out of 13 categories.

The survey, prepared for the Knight Commission’s Faculty Summit on Intercollegiate Athletics, showed that faculty who are interested in athletics governance issues are generally dissatisfied with their roles. That was a common theme addressed Monday at the daylong summit in Washington, convened at the request of faculty interested in athletics reform.

Among those in attendance -- many of whom were professors and presidents with a strong interest in athletics -- there was a sense of bewilderment, but not surprise, that so many in the academy choose to ignore their sports programs.

“How can an enterprise that generates so much discussion have so little understanding attached to it?” asked Malcolm Moran, Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Pennsylvania State University and a former sportswriter at USA Today and The New York Times.

Scott Adler, an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado and a summit panelist, said the survey results accurately reflect the mood of faculty members at his campus. Even some of the most involved faculty see athletics as marginally tied to the mission of the university, he said. And that can be a dangerous outlook.

"The problem is if left unchecked, the athletic enterprise can damage the integrity of the university," Adler said. “That’s when faculty rightly get involved and become vocal in reform.”

Several panelists said it’s a problem if professors become interested only when problems occur or see the role of athletics oversight only as policing.

“It can’t just be crisis management,” said Alan Hauser, president-elect of the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association and a professor of biblical studies at Appalachian State University. “If faculty are going to be involved in governance of athletics, they have to be in it for the long term. You don’t do it overnight suddenly when the building is on fire.”

Several speakers said they are optimistic that faculty, if asked, would accept greater roles in overseeing aspects of athletics programs. Rewarding them for their service to the university (in tenure reviews, for instance) is one way to attract more faculty to such governance groups.

“Faculty athletics boards have to have some strength, some real teeth,” said Nathan Tublitz, a professor of biology at the University of Oregon and co-chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, an alliance of faculty senates interested in changing big-time college athletics. “Otherwise, faculty aren’t going to serve.”

And some panelists said realistically, there’s a limited role for faculty in the process, particularly when it comes to the so-called “revenue” sports. Adler said faculty members won't to be able to make their mark in setting a coach's salary or deciding whom a big-time program hires as athletics directors, for instance.

Added Josephine Potuto, head of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I Committee on Infractions and a law professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln: “I don’t know that we are going to change the culture substantially, and I know we’re not going to change the culture substantially in a short time.”

Gary R. Roberts, dean of the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis, said that when it comes down to whether to play a football game on a Thursday night, faculty won’t have the final say.

“It’s not the faculty’s job to run athletics programs,” Roberts said. “The faculty is not going to be allowed to do anything to interfere with big-time basketball and football programs…. At the end of the day, faculty don’t have much of a role to play in the entertainment business. We shouldn’t have any illusions that we can change the system.”

Tublitz challenged Roberts, saying "there’s no reason for most of us to be here if we think that way. Faculty are gatekeepers. Every decision made has to keep in mind academic quality and what’s best for students. Unless we draw a line and say this is our value system and we’re going to maintain that, we’re finished.”

While admitting that he’s pessimistic about the faculty’s ability to change the culture of big-time athletics, Roberts said some of the issues can be addressed at the national level with best-practices lists from reform groups.

Panelists offered other ways to connect athletics and academics. Make more coaches faculty at their college. (Roberts was skeptical: "There aren't many coaches you'd want on your faculty.") Require each campus to have an athletics board, and elect tenured professors who know the campuses’ athletics culture to serve. Assign a professor to each sports team to serve as a liaison.

Most agreed that faculty who are involved in governance should be academic guardians -- that's both the natural role for professors at their institutions, and the way a sports program gone awry can do the most fundamental damage to a university. They should know, for instance, whether athletes are “clustered” in certain majors and programs, and whether certain professors are known for giving students easy A’s.

David Ridpath, executive director of the Drake Group and an assistant professor of sports administration at Mississippi State University, said his group is concerned about the prevalence of “athlete majors” and the influence coaches exert in steering those students toward the programs.

But Phil Hughes, president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics and associate director of athletics for student services at Kansas State University, said there’s no inherent danger in the clustering of students unless a university feels it’s inappropriate for anyone to major in that field. (Athletes have time constraints that often limit their course of study, he said.)

Added Hauser, the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association president-elect: "If an academic institution offers a program, it's hopefully going to be a rigorous program. If an institution is offering programs that aren't rigorous, it has bigger problems than whether it is offering athletes 'soft' majors."


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