The Great Conference Confusion

The landscape of college athletics could shift dramatically in the coming weeks, as the Big Ten and Pacific-10 Conferences consider expanding their membership. While the exact shape of the realignment is unclear, it will likely make geography even less meaningful as an organizing principle than it has been since previous rounds of conference expansion in the 1990s and 2000s, and further consolidate power in a small number of conferences. Watchdogs of college sports caution that this is a losing prospect for higher education, both athletically and academically.

June 9, 2010

The landscape of college athletics could shift dramatically in the coming weeks, as the Big Ten and Pacific-10 Conferences consider expanding their membership. While the exact shape of the realignment is unclear, it will likely make geography even less meaningful as an organizing principle than it has been since previous rounds of conference expansion in the 1990s and 2000s, and further consolidate power in a small number of conferences. Watchdogs of college sports caution that this is a losing prospect for higher education, both athletically and academically.

Though rumors about conference realignments have been rampant in recent months, they have taken clearer shape in the past few days. Sunday, after a lengthy series of meetings, the presidents of the Pac-10 universities gave Larry Scott, the conference's commissioner, sole authority to explore and negotiate expansion of the conference. The “most widely discussed scenario,” according to numerous news media reports, has the Pac-10 extending invitations to the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University and University of Colorado -- all members of the Big 12 Conference. This scenario has generated so much discussion that Texas legislators loyal to Baylor University, a fellow Big 12 institution, are lobbying behind closed doors to ensure that Baylor, and not Colorado, is offered an invitation to a potentially expanded Pac-10.

All the talk about Pac-10 expansion spurred a reaction from Big Ten officials, who have quietly discussed expansion for months. (Most publicly, the conference has eyed the University of Notre Dame, an independent football power, as a prospective 12th member, but reports have touched on numerous members of the Big East Conference as well as several in the Big 12, including the University of Texas.)

After a meeting with Big Ten presidents Sunday, James E. Delany, the league's commissioner, admitted that the 12-18 month timeline the conference had laid out for expansion in December could be accelerated by happenings elsewhere. Saturday, for example, Big 12 officials reportedly gave the University of Nebraska and the University of Missouri a two-week time period during which to let them know if they wish to remain in the conference. The two institutions are rumored to be among those considered for a possible Big Ten expansion.

A significant exodus of teams from the Big 12 could do serious damage, leaving institutions like the University of Kansas, Kansas State University and Iowa State University without a conference and stripping them of access to automatic bids to football and basketball championships. So concerned is Bernadette Gray-Little, Kansas chancellor, that she has reached out to the leaders of Nebraska and Missouri, imploring them not to leave the Big 12.

Presidents Silent on Expansion

Public arguments in favor of the expansion of the Big Ten and Pac-10 by those involved in the discussion are few, but conventional wisdom holds that larger conferences would be in a better position to win more lucrative television contracts for the broadcasting of popular sports like football and men’s basketball – meaning large payouts for their member institutions. But that leaves open questions about how expansion would affect non-revenue sports, travel costs, and the academic experiences of athletes, among other issues.

A spokeswoman for the Big Ten noted that Delany would not offer any comment until a final decision has been made. Likewise, attempts to reach Scott and other Pac-10 officials were unsuccessful.

Nearly all of the presidents of the Pac-10 universities declined to comment on this story, neither airing their thoughts about expansion nor revealing their vote during Sunday’s meeting to give Scott full authority to push for expansion without further oversight from them. Only Mark A. Emmert, the University of Washington president who will assume the role of National Collegiate Athletic Association president in November, offered comment. defending his decision to participate in the expansion discussion in spite of his upcoming job change.

“I participated in the regular meeting of the Pac-10 presidents as usual, including the discussion about conference realignments,” Emmert wrote in an e-mail message to Inside Higher Ed. “I did so because I am still president of [Washington] and as such have a continuing responsibility to represent the interest of the university. The NCAA does not determine conference structure or membership, nor does it participate in the discussion about membership. These discussions are strictly up to the presidents of the universities and colleges that make up each conference.”

Presidents from Big Ten institutions have been similarly close-mouthed about their views on potential expansion, though conference officials have made it clear they would like to add a member institution that fits their existing profile. For instance, all of the Big Ten’s institutions are members of the prestigious Association of American Universities and – along with the University of Chicago – collaborate academically via the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC); participation in both academic groups is considered a prerequisite for conference membership by most Big Ten officials. Most of the potential recruits being considered by the Big Ten are AAU, members with the exception of Notre Dame, whose high-profile football team and otherwise excellent academic reputation might make up for this in the minds of some officials.

These possible criteria were highlighted last week, when the Columbus Dispatch unearthed an e-mail from E. Gordon Gee, Ohio State University's president, to Delany, recalling a recent discussion between Gee and William C. Powers Jr., president of UT-Austin.

"I did speak with Bill Powers at Texas, who would welcome a call to say they have a 'Tech' problem," wrote Gee, presumably revealing that the Big Ten has interest in Texas but would not like to have to bring along Texas Tech, a rival of Texas but not a fellow AAU member. Neither Gee, Powers nor Delany have commented further on this exchange.

Critics Fight to be Heard

Lost in most of the debate regarding major conference realignment are faculty and other watchdog groups that might seek to draw attention to the possible drawbacks, academic and otherwise, that could result from this type of expansion.

Alan J. Hauser, president of the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association and professor of philosophy and religion at Appalachian State University, argued that any sort of conference expansion usually has a negative affect on athletes.

“More members in a conference likely means more distances that will need to be traveled in order to compete against more remote conference members,” Hauser said. “This will increase the heavy time burden already laid on student-athletes. It will also likely entail more missed class time. It is quite obvious the reasons that the conferences want this – so that they can leverage more and better television coverage, giving them more revenue. But this coverage comes at a price, and few people ever mention the pressures placed on student-athletes when discussions such as these are held.”

Ken Struckmeyer, co-chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics and professor of horticulture and landscape architecture at Washington State University, a Pac-10 member, noted that faculty members at his institution were not consulted by the president there regarding expansion. Though that fact didn't surprise him, he was taken aback to learn that the Pac-10 presidents had given the conference commissioner unilateral power to act toward expansion. He was also dismayed by the lack of attention to non-revenue sports in the public discussion, echoing concern that travel could be more burdensome to athletes in these sports than in more popular sports like football and basketball.

“I’m surprised they gave that authority away,” Struckmeyer said of the Pac-10 presidents. “It gives the impression that it was a unanimous decision. I haven’t seen our president, so I don’t know what he thinks. I don’t even know what the standards are for expansion. It seems they’re purely economic. This is driven by football, but no one has asked, ‘How is women’s basketball going to work? How is tennis going to work?’ Those things seem to be non-issues.”

Christopher Kutz, chair of the Academic Senate and law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, a Pac-10 member, expressed his concern about how conference expansion would affect the already large cost of athletics at his institution. Last year, for example, the Academic Senate passed a resolution last year requiring that Berkeley’s athletics program wean itself off the use of institutional funds.

"In general, of course, more revenue (assuming it is applied towards existing program costs) would be a good thing, though all the predictions are very speculative, of course," wrote Kutz in an e-mail. "On the other hand, the faculty would certainly be concerned if the change in the league led to a lessening of the commitment of academic excellence of the member schools (or a greater tolerance for pressure on athletes at students). And there is worry that a bigger division will increase the pace of the spending arms race that has proven so costly to college sports."

Jason Lanter, president of the Drake Group and professor of psychology at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, urged faculty members and others concerned about the commercialization of big-time college athletics to speak out on their campuses.

“This rubs me the wrong way, because presidents have the power to stop this,” Lanter said. “Often dramatic changes like this are made purposely at the beginning of the summer so that the faculty voice, collectively, cannot be heard. Still, faculty need a voice in this. It’s got to do with their students and their classrooms.”

Not all of those watching the potential changes in big-time college athletics from the academic side, however, are particularly worried.

Barbara McFadden Allen, director of the CIC, said that her organization “has a good thing going” and that she trusts the presidents of its member institutions to maintain their commitment to academics when considering any expansion. She herself has not been consulted.

“Half of the Big Ten presidents were former provosts within the Big Ten, and many of them have served on [the CIC] board,” Allen said. “From that perspective, I’m confident the presidents have a deep and abiding respect for what’s been precious about this group of universities. I attribute our success to our longevity – we’re the oldest athletic conference – and that these are peer institutions. At the research and graduate level, we look a lot alike and can come to the table ready, willing and able to solve problems and issues than maybe those in a more disparate group can. I’m personally happy to watch the process unfold and see what happens. I trust our presidents will bring us into the conversation as the pacing moves forward.”


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