Who is In Charge?
In the past several weeks, I have written on two occasions about big-time collegiate athletics in light of the Penn State scandal. With the start of the Fall semester and the return of collegiate athletics, I hoped that sportsmanship and the model student-athlete would take center stage. I was wrong.
Last week, two reports were in the news … one local, one national … one sad, one stunning! The local and sad story was the release of the report on the Boston University hockey program. Hockey is to BU what football is to Penn State. The report indicated a pattern of inappropriate student-athlete behavior that was persistent because of a lack of institutional oversight and action.
This is a sad story to me because while I do not know the former or current president of Penn State, the president of Boston University is a respected colleague. He is a man with a strong academic vision who leads BU with a commitment to excellence and integrity. But the fact seems clear that BU hockey has been out of control. And so, the negative sports culture in colleges and universities has come to light again.
But more stunning to me are the results of an investigative study conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education. The publication studied the contracts of college and university presidents, who lead institutions with the largest athletics departments. And the findings were almost unbelievable: “Of the presidents and chancellors who oversee the 25 biggest athletic departments, not a single one has contract language related to oversight of athletics.”
This is true for Florida State, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc. And it is true for Penn State, Ohio State and North Carolina … all of which have received significant sanctions from the NCAA for problems with their athletic programs. Even if such responsibility for oversight was not a president’s responsibility in the past, one would assume that after the Penn State scandal, Boards of Trustees would make this a priority. Our assumption would appear to be incorrect.
The study by the Chronicle is very disconcerting. It found that presidential contracts at major universities are not devoid of goals and accountabilities. But these relate to financial management, fund raising, government relations, strategic planning, and facilities. The only mention of athletics that The Chronicle found in the 25 institutions with the largest athletics departments included presidential perks like free tickets.
It gets even more disturbing. The report states, “They (presidents) are afraid of the consequences. One president told The Chronicle he wouldn't want detailed language about athletics in his contract because he doesn't want to be held responsible for the behavior of students or others who are beyond his control.”
Who is beyond the control of the president? Isn’t the president ultimately responsible for student behavior?
It is hard to imagine this problem getting fixed any time soon if this is a prevalent viewpoint. And this viewpoint seems widespread. For example, the 2009 Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics conducted by the NCAA reported that of the 120 institutions in the Football Bowl Subdivision, “nearly three-fourths of those interviewed believed they had limited power to effect change on their own campuses in athletics financing and the larger problems related to it.”
This report went on to say, "The real power doesn't lie with the president. Presidents and chancellors are afraid to rock the boat with boards, benefactors, and political supporters who want to win, so they turn their focus elsewhere."
There are a great many outstanding leaders in higher education. But presidents of all institutions must be willing to lead the entire institution. This is far more important than how good the seats are at the football game!
(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)