50-Yard-Line Seats and Faculty Oversight

November 12, 2008

At the University of Michigan, football is king. And, aside from appearing in a national championship, there is no bigger opportunity for the Wolverines than “The Granddaddy of Them All,” the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. -- traditionally a New Year’s Day match-up between the Big Ten and Pac-10 conference champions.

When the team made the 2007 Rose Bowl, it might have been hard for many fans to get tickets, but at least seven faculty members knew they would be guaranteed seats. The university’s athletics department not only ensured that members of its Committee on Academic Performance -- a faculty body that makes recommendations in cases of athlete eligibility -- received tickets, it also covered their travel expenses. Members of the university's Advisory Board on Intercollegiate Athletics -- a group of faculty, alumni, athletes and administrators that advise the athletic director -- received the same incentive. Unlike those at other institutions, these individuals receive no additional perks, such as season tickets to football games, but simply bowl tickets and travel.

The practice was brought to the attention of many Michigan faculty following a July 2007 audit of the athletics department that was ordered by Provost Teresa Sullivan. The audit -- which examined the composition of the university's "official party" at that year's Rose Bowl, and whose advisory memo raised the specter of a possible conflict of interest -- was not performed out of concern about this practice, but revealed it incidentally.

Philip Hanlon, vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs at Michigan, said the audit was a precautionary measure made after a partial restructuring of the athletics department. He said that during the university’s National Collegiate Athletic Association certification process (the NCAA equivalent of accreditation for athletics programs) in 2003-4, a recommendation was made that the department’s academic support program for students report to both the provost and the athletic director, rather than just the latter as had been the practice. Following any sort of change in reporting lines, Hanlon said, it is common practice to perform an audit.

Although the audit's advisory memo reaffirmed what the NCAA had already found in its reaccreditation process -- that offering tickets to these faculty committee members "may appear to be a conflict of interest" -- Hanlon said it found no wrongdoing in the practice itself. Even before the audit was conducted, he said, the university had implemented a "management plan," involving a change in the committee's authority, to prevent any possible influence the ticket policy may have had on faculty members.

The Committee on Academic Performance reviews cases of athletes who have fallen below the university’s standards. Previously, the faculty committee itself decided whether the students should remain eligible to compete. Under the change, the panel recommends a course of action for the provost to consider in deciding whether that athlete should be able to play, practice only or sit out entirely as a result.

Hanlon said presenting tickets to these individuals does not present a conflict because the faculty members only advise the provost. Officials from the provost’s office, who make the final decision on these eligibility matters, receive no tickets or anything of value from the athletics department.

Despite the assurance from administrators that the practice does not create an actual conflict of interest and should therefore continue, some Michigan faculty disagree.

Keith Riles, a physics professor, reintroduced the matter before the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs in late October, citing a unanimous motion the group made when the audit was released last year to review the ticket practice. He said he thought the matter had been resolved following the initial discussion last year but was troubled to learn that the athletics department paid for travel expenses for members of the Committee on Academic Performance again for the university’s 2008 trip to the Capital One Bowl, in Orlando.

“I was disturbed to realize the practice continued and troubled that the report from the university audit office seemed to have gone unaddressed,” Riles said. “I don’t want to get into second guessing my colleagues, but the potential for conflict seems quite strong. If the practice is removed then we can be assured the conflict will be as well.”

Monday, Riles tabled a motion before Senate committee that asks Mary Sue Coleman, the university’s president, to stop the athletics department’s practice of covering the travel expenses to bowl games for this faculty oversight committee. The motion will be considered at the panel's December meeting. Riles said he wanted time for Bill Martin, the athletics director, to address the group on the practice.

Other faculty members, however, have a different take on the ticket practice and Riles’s motion. Charles Smith, a pharmacology professor, said he believes the practice to be harmless and incapable of influencing the work of members of the Committee of Academic Performance. Still, the perception of potential wrongdoing, he said, is likely a problem worth considering, even if there is none.

“I think it looks bad to receive a perk,” Smith said of the ticket practice. “Some people might come to the conclusion that these people are unduly influenced. No matter the case, I think people who are involved with faculty and athletics need to appear purer than Caesar’s wife.”

Smith also said he finds the time and energy put into investigating and questioning this practice a “horrible waste of time.” There are, he said, other important matters involving the university and athletics that remain to be considered.

The practice of giving incentives to faculty oversight boards of athletics is not confined to Michigan. For example, the Big 10 conference states that the athletics department can name “members of the committee, council or board having control of intercollegiate athletics at that university and the faculty representatives” among its “official party” for travel.

Carole Browne, biology professor at Wake Forest and co-chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics -- an alliance of faculty senates that seek to reform college sports -- said these incentive packages are commonplace. For example, because she serves on a similar athletics board at Wake Forest, Browne is offered season tickets to both men’s basketball and football home games. She said she does not accept the tickets, though, because she disapproves of the practice.

When attempting to ban the incentive packages members of these faculty advisory committees receive, Brown said it can be hard to push for change without impugning one's colleagues. She added that there are ways to compromise, such as grandfathering in individuals who already receive tickets and then banning the practice for the future. Unless incentives such as free tickets and travel are banned for faculty advising athletics departments, Browne said, it is hard to determine whether or not faculty members have been unduly influenced by a gift.

The practice at Michigan, at least, will be put on hold this season, but not because of any objections to it. For the first time in 34 years, the Wolverines are ineligible to go to a bowl and will sit out this postseason.

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