The regents who govern the University System of Georgia’s 31 institutions don’t think intercollegiate athletics has grown at the expense of the academy -- but they want to make sure it doesn’t.
With a new policy adopted Wednesday, the system’s Board of Regents has given itself some authority over its universities' athletics programs, which it previously ceded entirely to the institutions themselves. The new policy deals primarily with program expansion and financing.
“Athletics are certainly something that we value, but we can’t afford to be all things to all people, and we certainly need to think critically, especially if an institution is thinking about expanding,” said Houston Davis, the system’s executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer. “We’ve got fiduciary responsibilities and academic quality assurances as an existing enterprise, and we need to make sure we’re not making those moves to the detriment of other core areas of the institution.”
The policy emerges at a time when athletics spending is higher than ever, universities are playing a never-ending game of conference-hopping that significantly affects students and budgets, and regents are being held responsible  for criminal acts within their sports programs. Perhaps not coincidentally, Georgia’s is the second system to approve such a policy in recent months, following the University System of Maryland in September.
Georgia’s policy stipulates that “operation of intercollegiate athletics cannot come at the expense of academic programs and essential activities at a campus or by diverting funds from other major campus functions.” Now, when university presidents want to expand athletics -- whether that be with new sports, stadiums or student fees -- they must first alert the system chancellor, who will decide whether the institution must notify the board, which can then choose to require a formal review and approval.
The review in turn would require a proposal from the president, including a five-year operational and capital plan; a record of support and approval by the campus, including students; proof that associated athletic scholarships would comply with National Collegiate Athletic Association rules; assurance that the plan would not violate Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which require equitable opportunity for both sexes; a stipulation that academic programs cannot be compromised; evidence that the university considered implications of athletic programs on facilities; and a requirement that the campus president administer all athletic funds. (Any institutions with separately incorporated athletic associations must be audited annually.)
Davis said regents drafted the policy after getting word that several of the system’s institutions planned to request increases in the athletic fees they charge to students: “We really came to the realization that our existing policies were not as robust as we wished.”
In survey results  published in October, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges reported that while about three-quarters of all institutions’ boards have a policy on athletics, half of them need to be improved. The survey was a follow-up to a statement and best practices document in 2009, in which AGB argued that the fiduciary responsibility of boards obligates them to be deeply involved in athletics.
Richard D. Legon, AGB president, said he was “impressed” by the Georgia system’s move, and suggested that this policy trend will continue. Legon praised Georgia for recognizing the need for oversight of finances and athlete welfare, but also appropriately delegating administrative responsibilities to the individual campus presidents.
“I think it strikes a nice balance and is a model that can provide a lot of best practice opportunities for other system boards to consider going forward,” Legon said. “I think we’re seeing the beginnings of – I’m not saying it’s a tidal wave, but … this is clearly a step in the right direction.”
The Georgia system governs all of its institutions, none of which have their own board. Compared to the system’s old policy, this is all but a crackdown. The new rule replaces board Policy 4.5, which stated in its entirety, “Management and control of intercollegiate and intramural athletic affairs shall be the responsibility of the respective institutional authorities. Each institution participating in a program of intercollegiate athletics is expected to take the necessary steps to ensure that its management of the program is in compliance with the provisions of applicable federal laws and the regulations of any athletic conference with which it is affiliated.”
Georgia’s system governance structure – “not unique, but not the norm” – made developing a policy that applied equally to nearly three dozen institutions a complex feat, Davis said. The system's members range from major sports powers like the University of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology to much smaller technical colleges that compete in Division III or not at all.
It is certainly a different task for a system rather than a single institution, Legon said, but boards still need to be accountable to stakeholders and policy makers.
“There are unique challenges in all areas of system governance, and so sure, it’s challenging to oversee intercollegiate athletics just as it’s challenging to oversee systemwide academic quality,” he said. “But it needs to be done.”
Georgia State University President Mark P. Becker said he doesn’t think the new policy is problematic, particularly because his institution already followed this practice. (Georgia State added football two seasons ago and this year is moving up into Division I’s Football Bowl Series, so he’s had plenty of athletic consultations with the board.)
“Just as I expect not to be surprised by my direct reports, I do my best to keep from surprising the chancellor or the board,” he said in an e-mail. “It is never a good idea to get too far out in front of your boss.”