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The Board Role in College Sports

April 8, 2009

One could make a pretty strong case that, if anything, college and university trustees already pay too much attention to the athletics programs on their campuses -- interfering inappropriately in the hiring of coaches and other decisions, for instance, or emphasizing sports to the exclusion of other, arguably more central, institutional matters. Given that, it may seem odd that the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities has, for the third time in five years, issued a policy statement about trustees' responsibilities for athletics -- the kind of statement that the group rarely issues, acknowledges Richard A. Skinner, AGB's senior vice president for programs and research.

"Where we've seen things really become ugly," Skinner said, not naming names, "is where athletics were raised to such importance in the context of the institution, over everything else. The goal with this statement is to put in some sort of proportionality, to suggest that the board exercise its fiduciary responsibility and oversight for intercollegiate athletics in the same way that you would for other aspects of the undergraduate experience.

"We're trying to create a sense of, 'Boards, you are responsible for this, and in delegating responsibility for management to the president, that doesn't relieve you at all of the need to be skeptical,' " Skinner said. "It puts in place at least the potential for clear accountability, from boards to presidents, presidents to athletics directors, AD's to coaches, and then all the way back up."

The statement AGB released Tuesday updates and expands documents from 2004 and 2007 that sought to help boards figure out what they should and, importantly, should not do in overseeing sports programs on their campuses. The core substance of the new document has changed little from previous versions; the biggest difference is that the trustees' group has appended an "illustrative policy" that it says institutions should consider creating to delineate clearly the responsibilities of boards and college presidents regarding athletics. Such policies, the AGB statement says, should be particularly important as colleges and universities go through the National Collegiate Athletic Association's certification process, which is paying increasing attention to governance, among other issues, Skinner said.

The latter idea stems particularly from AGB's partnership with the NCAA, with which it has been working increasingly closely since 2007 in an effort to reinforce the idea -- central to the agenda of the NCAA's president, Myles Brand -- that college presidents have to exert their authority to keep sports in perspective on their campuses, and that they can do that only with support (and without excessive interference from) their bosses -- boards of trustees or regents.

"While most of what transpires in college athletics is positive, there is a growing sense among academic leaders, the news media, and the public that our society glorifies athletic accomplishment far more than academic achievement. At some colleges and universities, intercollegiate athletics programs may be detracting from the institution’s mission," the AGB statement says. "What’s more, the increasingly commercialized nature of major sports at the highest competitive levels and a widening gulf between the athletic and academic cultures at some institutions and in some communities have negatively affected the reputation and public standing of higher education as a whole."

It adds: "Restoring balance between sports and education continues to be elusive. If efforts to achieve an appropriate balance are to succeed, governing board members will need to lend consistent and public support to their chief executives and academic leaders who are at the forefront of such discussions."

The timing of the AGB statement -- coming the day after the end of college sports' highest-profile (and most lucrative) event, the Final Four, and less than a week after the University of Kentucky signed an eight-year, $31.5 million contract, the richest ever, to secure John Calipari as its men's basketball coach -- is coincidental, but indicates, depending on how skeptical you are, how much work is to be done or how futile the AGB's campaign is likely to be.

But as more and more colleges are contemplating moves into the spotlight of Division I sports, says AGB's Skinner, the time has never been better for the trustees' group and others concerned about public "cynicism" about college sports to do what they can to make sure that boards are "appropriately skeptical of the whole phenomenon," and that they have policies designed to ensure that individual trustees do not run roughshod over either fellow board members or presidents on athletics issues.

 

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