N.C.A.A., Educause, NASPA and other groups hosting events in Indiana say they're concerned about new law that critics argue gives businesses the right to discriminate against gay people. Thus far, no one is staying away -- and some wonder why criticism came too late.
Yesterday my daughter – a graduate student in social work at the University of Michigan, with enough student loans for a down payment on a modest Ann Arbor house – asked me what I thought about the university’s $35 million (not counting various add-ons) contract agreement with its new football coach, Jim Harbaugh. Having closely followed the continuing dramatic rise in college football and basketball coach compensation levels, I wasn’t particularly surprised.
Some observers would argue that Harbaugh -- after wildly successful head coaching stints at Stanford and with the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers -- was not merely a candidate for the job, but the only candidate. A three-year starter at quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist for the Wolverines, he was known for a fiery demeanor and competitive streak that matched his coach, the legendary Bo Schembechler.
When asked about Michigan’s chances against Ohio State in a 1986 game that would decide the Big Ten champion and Rose Bowl representative, Harbaugh guaranteed victory, defiantly declaring, “It’s a great feeling to beat Ohio State and we’re going to have that feeling Saturday. I don't care where we play the game. I hate to say it, but we could play it in the parking lot. We could play the game at 12 noon or midnight.” (Michigan went on to win the game.)
The label “favorite son” might be an understatement in how the Michigan faithful view Harbaugh. Given the hard times that have befallen the university’s storied football program, some prefer “savior.”
Enter the newly inaugurated Michigan president Mark Schlissel, who may believe that since assuming his present position, he has arrived in some sort of alternate universe. Schlissel, a physician by training, came to Ann Arbor after a stint as the provost at (in terms of athletics, the comparatively pristine) Brown University, where a typical home football game attracts around 4,000 spectators. As Michigan fans would see it, that’s a decent tailgate turnout.
Schlissel had barely gotten comfortable in his new office chair before realizing that his first challenge wasn’t raising money for one of Michigan’s nationally renowned academic programs or providing leadership to attract world class faculty, but rather dealing with – gasp – a now competitively mediocre football program.
Early in his tenure, Schlissel – perhaps thinking he was still in Providence, not Ann Arbor – addressed the university’s Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs. He raised concerns about various academic issues relating to athletics, including graduation rates of football players and lowered admission standards for athletes – issues that should be on the mind of any president whose school sponsors Division I football and basketball.
But faster than you could say “Go Blue,” Schlissel – under pressure from various constituencies – reversed field, apologizing to then-head football coach Brady Hoke and to Michigan coaches and athletes en masse, while offering a “clarification” of his previous remarks. Weeks later, answering a question on the search for a new Michigan athletics director, a somewhat shell-shocked Schlissel remarked, “I've really learned that this whole athletic sphere and the usual way you approach things just doesn't work.”
What Schlissel really learned is what we have known for some time. One reason college athletic reform has never taken hold is because the very people responsible for making sure academics and research are the university’s highest priorities simply aren’t in charge.
One wonders how hard Schissel had to swallow before agreeing to pay Harbaugh an annual salary of $5 million – roughly seven times what Schissel is paid to lead the entire university. And does anyone really believe that Harbaugh – as competitive/Type A as they come among his coaching peers – agreed to come to Michigan without some assurances from the university regarding “flexibility” in admissions standards for football players?
In 2004, the esteemed Yale scholar Richard Brodhead assumed the presidency of Duke University. On one of his first days in office, Brodhead was advised that Duke’s legendary basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski was being wooed by the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Lakers.
Brodhead was advised that he had to do everything in his power to convince Krzyzewski to stay in Durham – that Coach K’s departure would do irreparable damage to the university and surely doom his presidency. Brodhead complied, going as far as to join students in “Coach K, please stay” chants and to help fill a human chain forming the letter “K” outside the building that housed Krzyzewski’s office.
Ten years later, Schissel finds himself in a similar position. When it comes to athletics, very few new university leaders have any idea of what they are getting into. Athletic departments are so financially leveraged that presidents often feel obligated to grant the wishes of fan bases and powerful donors, some of them trustees with far more interest in attracting top coaches than renowned teachers and researchers.
And if history is any indicator in the spend all you make world of college sports, an infusion of cash from the $7.3 billion ESPN college football playoff television contract will not likely lessen this dependency.
Make no mistake about it, if Jim Harbaugh returns Michigan to gridiron glory he -- like Krzyzewski at Duke -- will report to no one at the University of Michigan except himself.
Bob Malekoff is a lecturer in the department of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
College football frenzy is peaking, soon to give way to a crescendo of basketball mania culminating in March Madness. For about 108 of the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, this is a distinctly mixed blessing, as intercollegiate athletics pose a drain on school finances – one that is growing steadily over time.
Schools are in an athletic arms race, feeling the necessity to spend ever more funds on high coaches’ salaries and fancy facilities lest they suffer athletic humiliation and the wrath of irate alumni and fans. According to USA Today data, more than 100 schools currently subsidize intercollegiate athletics by more than $10 million a year. The fact that the University of Florida is spending some $7 million to lure a football coach away from Colorado State shows the financial dimensions of this are huge. It is no wonder that at the recent White House college summit, Vice President Biden blasted schools for elaborate spending on stadium sky boxes.
But as President Ray Watts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham recently showed, it does not have to be that way. He is eliminating the school’s football program.
UAB has been a football power wannabe, playing in the shadows of its superpower state rivals, the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and Auburn University, which have won a majority of national championships in the past five years.
Its stadium, Legion Field, which seats almost 72,000 people, has limped along with an average attendance recently of under 15,000 fans per game. UAB takes in about $9 million in revenues from its athletics programs but spends $27 million. That $18 million loss amounts to nearly $1,000 annually for each of UAB’s 19,000 students – the equivalent of about 13 percent of the school’s in-state tuition price. Getting rid of football will eliminate some of that loss, though the school will maintain several other sports. More importantly, perhaps, the school will not have to spend tens of millions on new facilities viewed critical to remaining competitive.
Contrast the UAB experience to Ohio University, where we have some experience. Like UAB, it has a so-so football team (6-6 record) and considers a game with 15,000 attending to be pretty typical, despite its stadium capacity of 24,000. Like UAB, it plays in the shadow of a football powerhouse that regularly draws over 100,000 to its games, currently fourth-ranked Ohio State, playing UAB’s sister school Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Like UAB, OU is forced to subsidize intercollegiate sports to the tune of about $18 million a year – again, nearly $1,000 for each of its roughly 20,000 students on the Athens campus (partially disguised as part of a “student activity fee”). Both universities have medical schools. The institutional similarities are striking.
While UAB President Watts is saying “enough is enough,” Ohio President Roderick McDavis is following a more conventional path: let’s spend more to try to break into the ranks of the athletically anointed. Facing similar facility problems as UAB, OU has built a $12.5 million indoor practice facility, primarily for the football team.
It has also announced plans for an “academic center” costing more than $5 million, which will serve as a gated community of sorts where athletes but not ordinary students can study. Ostensibly, an existing study facility and the university’s library are insufficient for the athletes. Similarly, a decade ago the basketball coach made much less than McDavis, but now the coach is paid significantly more than he is.
When former Vanderbilt University President Gordon Gee made the athletic department a unit within the normal university bureaucracy, subject to all of its rules regarding budgeting and staffing, he said that if he tried to do that at Ohio State (where he also was president), he would quickly be pumping gas for a living. University presidents who try to unilaterally disarm athletics face fierce threats to job security that prevent any constructive reform to rein in college costs.
Instead, resources are misappropriated toward sports. Presidents like McDavis spend hours trying to cajole rich donors to help fund new athletic facilities when that money could finance the construction of, say, a much-needed performing arts center or more scholarships for excellent students. The crowding out of academic needs to support sports has come at a high reputational cost – OU has fallen 13 spots in the U.S. News national university listing over the past five years.
Boise State has emerged in recent years as a football power, but compares poorly with the less football-oriented University of Idaho. Despite spending more than twice as much as Idaho on athletics ($43 million versus $19 million), it loses more, and in both the Forbes and U.S. News rankings of colleges, Idaho clearly surpasses Boise. Many university presidents fail to recognize the Iron Law of Sports: when someone wins a game, someone else loses. It is impossible for a large portion of schools to achieve primacy in any given sport.
Economic pressures, however, suggest that other presidents may start biting the bullet and take the UAB route. Total college enrollments are lower today than three years ago, and high costs paired with widespread underemployment of recent college graduates are making students more price-sensitive than in the past. Passing on athletic subsidies to students in the form of higher fees is increasingly unrealistic.
The top 60 or so schools that are genuine athletic powers, about half losing $5 million or less annually on sports, are gaining control of the lucrative commercial aspects of sports through the NCAA athletic cartel. So while Watts might be catching some backlash for his decision to shut down the football program, do not be surprised if this turns out to be a recurring strategy for presidents to control costs in the future.
Additionally, the continued tales of corruption and abuse in sports that stain the reputation of higher education, such as phantom courses at the University of North Carolina, sex abuse at Penn State, and widespread cheating at other schools, should make presidents and trustees more willing to fight to withdraw from the arms race.
There is another model, where sports can be part of college life on an amateur basis without expensive coaches, ESPN television contracts, or athletic scholarships. In fact, this has been a glorious season for a New England town, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard College had an undefeated football team, and M.I.T. went 10-1, losing only in a national playoff game -- despite spending relatively modest amounts on sports. While neither school makes any list of the top 100 football powers, they are at or near the top of nearly every academic ranking.
Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and teaches economics at Ohio University, where Joseph Hartge is an undergraduate studying economics in the Honors Tutorial College.