Aca­demics over ath­let­ics

Uni­ver­si­ties must re­fo­cus on their core mis­sions: ed­u­ca­tion and re­search

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

Hav­ing served on the Uni­ver­sity Sys­tem of Mary­land Board of Re­gents for nearly a dozen years, in­clud­ing a term as chair, I’ve in­ter­viewed scores of prospec­tive col­lege pres­i­dents, and I’m con­vinced that some­where, there’s a se­cret in­ter­view book that all can­di­dates for these jobs in higher ed­u­ca­tion pass among them­selves. When asked, “What is the ap­pro­pri­ate role of ath­let­ics at the col­lege?” the an­swer al­ways be­gins the same way: “Ath­let­ics is the front porch of the uni­ver­sity…”

What they mean is that the ath­let­ics pro­gram is usu­ally the first — and some­times the only — thing peo­ple see or hear about a col­lege or uni­ver­sity. It’s a mar­ket­ing tool used to at­tract prospec­tive stu­dents, par­ents and donors. It’s a point of pride for alums and a way to main­tain their con­nec­tion (and en­cour­age an­nual fund giv­ing) to their alma mater. The bet­ter known and more suc­cess­ful your teams are, the higher the pro­file of the in­sti­tu­tion, so it goes.

I don’t dis­agree with the essence of that premise. Ath­let­ics do have a valu­able role to play in build­ing both the sense of com­mu­nity and rep­u­ta­tion of pub­lic and pri­vate col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties. But it’s time to re­build that front porch. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween ath­letic pro­grams and the ed­u­ca­tional mis­sion and fo­cus of col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties all over the coun­try has tipped grossly out of bal­ance.

In too many cases, ath­let­ics overshadow aca­demics in press cov­er­age, pub­lic aware­ness and the al­lo­ca­tion of the uni­ver­sity’s dol­lars — es­pe­cially when some­thing tragic oc­curs, like the death of Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land sopho­more foot­ball player Jor­dan Mc­Nair or the al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual mis­con­duct by school doc­tors at Ohio State and Michi­gan State or the (thus far) win­less foot­ball sea­son by Ne­braska’s new mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar coach.

When a col­lege or uni­ver­sity faces the glare of this type of neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity, all the world-class teach­ing, schol­ar­ship, re­search and men­tor­ing of the next gen­er­a­tion of thinkers, lead­ers and cre­ators that go on ev­ery day at the in­sti­tu­tion are eas­ily over­looked. The en­tire school’s rep­u­ta­tion is put at risk be­cause of this overem­pha­sis on ath­let­ics.

Con­sider the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land’s re­cent turn in the spot­light.

It was again named one of the top 25 pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties in Amer­ica by U.S. New & World Re­port and one of the top 15 pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties in the coun­try by Forbes. Sci­en­tists there re­ceived a $7.7 mil­lion grant from the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health for first-of-its-kind tick-borne dis­ease re­search, and oth­ers de­vel­oped the first sin­gle­pho­ton tran­sis­tor — a key piece of the puz­zle in the de­vel­op­ment of quan­tum­com­pat­i­ble com­put­ing hard­ware. The uni­ver­sity is home to na­tion­ally renowned pro­grams in en­gi­neer­ing, jour­nal­ism and busi­ness just to name a few, as well as lead­ing-edge re­search labs. And each year, it at­tracts thou­sands of highly qual­i­fied ap­pli­cants for the fewer than 5,000 spots in the fresh­man class.

Yet what gar­nered head­lines? Mc­Nair’s tragic death and long dis­cus­sions about how the coach and ath­letic depart­ment han­dled the sit­u­a­tion. And while those dis­cus­sions are cer­tainly nec­es­sary to pre­vent the death of young ath­letes in the fu­ture, they shouldn’t be the only time you read or hear a col­lege or uni­ver­sity’s name in the press.

So, who’s to blame for these mis­aligned pri­or­i­ties? In part, we all are. As a so­ci­ety, we do of­ten pay more at­ten­tion to the win-loss record than the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion, re­search and dis­cov­ery that oc­curs at our na­tion’s col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties.

This hy­per-fo­cus on sports comes at a steep cost. The high­est paid em­ploy­ees on cam­puses across the coun­try are the foot­ball and bas­ket­ball coaches, while lead­ing re­searchers and pro­fes­sors are of­ten lucky if they’re paid 5 or 10 per­cent of what coaches make. This em­pha­sis on ath­let­ics costs fam­i­lies, on av­er­age, $1,000 per stu­dent in tu­ition costs and fees for pro­grams that di­rectly ben­e­fit very few. And the num­ber of in­sti­tu­tions that ac­tu­ally profit fi­nan­cially from their ath­letic pro­grams can be counted on one’s fin­gers.

I’m not sure how long it will take for a bold uni­ver­sity pres­i­dent to stand up and push for a more re­al­is­tic bal­ance of ath­let­ics and aca­demics, but it’s time. As the cost of ed­u­ca­tion con­tin­ues to rise, putting a col­lege de­gree out of reach for many fam­i­lies and plung­ing an in­creas­ing num­ber of stu­dents into crip­pling stu­dent debt, the af­ford­abil­ity of higher ed­u­ca­tion is un­der in­creased scru­tiny, and ath­let­ics should be one of the first costs we put un­der that mi­cro­scope.

Per­haps the world-renowned ar­chi­tec­ture pro­gram at Col­lege Park can help that cam­pus — and oth­ers — re­design the front porch. David H. Nevins is a for­mer board chair of the Uni­ver­sity Sys­tem of Mary­land and cur­rent pres­i­dent of Nevins and As­so­ciates, a Towson based mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions firm. He can be reached at dnevins@nevin­

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