Monday, October 3, 2011

Defending College Presidents on Conference Alignment I

“Greedy!” “Hypocrites!” “Traitors!” No Tradition!” University Presidents have felt a hailstorm of criticism around the most recent movements of schools from athletic conference to conference. More are on the way. Amid the universal dismay and attacks upon college athletics, special bile seems reserved for the Presidents who are portrayed as driven only by greed and hypocrisy. Even NCAA President Mark Emmert has jointed in the condemnation of athletic decisions based on greed. The criticisms are overblown, romanticize very unromantic conferences, and I believe the Presidents are making good decisions and trying to act reasonably in an irrational system.

The modern university President has an impossible job. Wide public support for public universities has collapsed. Public and private universities face yearly deficits, and legislatures brutally cut universities abandoning higher education as a public aspiration for all. The Presidents face endless economic cuts and lack of support. 

They are trying to protect their institutions in awful times and must cut jobs, classes and salaries while raising tuition. Modern college Presidents spend most of their time trying to raise money, cultivate donors, deal with legislatures and regulators while articulating a mission that can create coherence in their diverse and divided institutions. The average university President lasts about five years given the stress and political complexity of the position.

One ingredient of this witches brew stands out, the internal subsidies that athletic departments require. Although 80 million Americans care about college football, college sports is accidental appendage to a university’s real mission of teaching students and expanding human knowledge. No college Presidents except in the SEC would wed college football and basketball to universities in this way. Most wish they did not have to bother with athletics and almot all programs run large structural deficits. But external constituencies and reputation force Presidents to take college athletics seriously. The external constituencies highly value college football and basketball, far more than internal university groups. Presidents inherit this historical marriage and must make the best of it.

Good Presidents understand that modern intercollegiate athletics can be as Mark Emmert calls it “the front porch of the university.” High profile athletic competition can generate visibility and repute for the university. It can help solidify relations with alumni and stimulate loyalty with the state electorate and in the state legislature. Done well it can sometimes increase enrollments and solidify contributions to the university as described by Charles Clotfelter in his book Big-Time Sports in American Universities. 

In the past major universities such as UCLA and Michigan State University strategically used sports to raise their standing and profile out of the shadow of Berkeley and Ann Arbor. At the same time these universities increased their academic excellence. Even today this siren song tempts colleges to add money-losing football or enter the Division I athletic sweepstakes.

The problem is that athletics lose money. Let me repeat: college athletics loses money, lots of money. With the bare exception of 22 schools, at best, all athletic departments require significant external fund raising and internal university subsidies to break even.  The vast majority of Division 1 programs hemorrhage money. Like any academic endeavor, building an intercollegiate athletics program costs money and requires a large infrastructure including stadiums, facilities, coaches, compliance, health and training personnel and scholarships, academic support, staff to maintain facilities and run events and strong marketing and media staffs. The infrastructure requirements of athletic programs are immense.

Modern Presidents oversee huge universities of which athletics is a very very small economic and student part. At Washington we have 45,000 students and 600+ student athletes! The athletics budget have tended to be a very stable 5 percent   of total budget at universities for years. But the cost structure and the visibility stand out. In times of great economic distress and endless budget cuts and uncertain philanthropic contributions, Presidents are trying to figure out how to keep the advantages of athletics but minimize or eliminate the internal subsidies.

Some money for intercollegiate athletics comes in independent revenue streams of tickets and media rights and contributions, but faculty see this as a distracting zero sum game. At most schools with small stadiums and erratic attendance, modest revenue is generated. The median structural deficit for Division 1 schools hovers around 9-10 million dollars.  Faculty and most students resent internal subsidies whether paying for heating and grounds or electricity for athletics. They really resent internal transfers directly from university general funds, and most students who do not attend or follow athletics resent student fees that support athletics.

Internal constituencies resent and resist funding sports as everything else gets cut. External constituencies either support athletics or are indifferent, few are hostile. As tuition goes up and up to cover the declining state and donor support, Presidents face intense stress to limit or eliminate the subsidy for athletics. More paradoxically as the school raises tuition, it raises the cost of athletics that must pay the increased scholarship costs. In a double paradox many Presidents believe that raising the profile of athletics will help their fund raising and state appropriations in the long run.

In this light College Presidents look at the conference change decisions through the lenses of their stewardship obligations to protect the economic viability of their institutions and raise its reputation and visibility. The conference change decisions are not about greed but Presidents doing their jobs in time of great difficulty.

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