As I discussed a few months ago, I’m currently conducting a study with my research assistant on the causes of why college presidents are fired or forced to resign. There was tremendous press around this issue particularly with Holden Thorp leaving UNC following the academic and athletic crisis there. This past weekend, Barry Jacobs, a sports columnist for the Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News and Observer wrote a thoughtful column that I want to repost and share here. Jacobs references our study about the causes for presidential involuntary turnover. I thought his take and the comparison between Holden Thorp and Paul Hardin was particularly salient. The athletics pressures on college presidents aren’t new and remain a significant problem for many universities.
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Athletics a Pressure Point for University Leaders
By Barry Jacobs
There’s no surefire way to prepare, no tutorial or textbook laying out the pitfalls and pressure points. University presidents and chancellors, the NCAA’s putative leaders, reportedly don’t even like to discuss athletics among themselves. Most will survive averting their gaze – “involuntary transitions” due to athletics scandal are surprisingly uncommon, according to a yet-to-be-published working paper on turnover among university presidents.
“The struggles with athletics may be the most prominent, but I don’t know that it’s the most threatening to a presidency, by and large,” says Michael Harris, the Southern Methodist University professor who co-authored the study. Firings and resignations, particularly at public universities, are more likely due to “loss of board confidence” and “financial improprieties.”
I had the privilege this week to speak with the Kathleen Dunn Show on Wisconsin Public Radio about athletics spending and the future of higher education. Our discussion covered a wide range of issues related to intercollegiate athletics as well as higher education more generally. The callers added great perspective and I enjoyed the opportunity. If you’re interested in these issues, I recommend you listen to the show or download the podcast version. In today’s post, I want to mention a couple of points that were raised in our discussion that are worthy of highlighting. Athletics presents a challenge to institutional leaders and all of those worried about the future of higher education.
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This week, UAB became the first NCAA FBS (formerly Division IA) university to drop its football program. Despite becoming bowl eligible for the first time in ten years this season, the university administration decided that football was no longer affordable. In a news release, UAB President Ray Watts said that “football is simply not sustainable.” Predictably, the national media picked up on this theme and a series of stories highlighted the escalating costs associated with big time college athletics. These articles also questioned the viability of football for schools like UAB. Although a compelling storyline, I argue that there is more than meets the eye in the case of UAB. Clearly, the escalating expenses of college sports and football in particular are problematic. As a result, the move to drop football is likely the right one for UAB, but I believe this right decision was made for the wrong reasons.
I fully intended for my post last week to be my only one on the UNC academic scandal. However, the reactions by the sports media and some within higher education force me to address the issue once again. The national sports media rushed to call on the university and the NCAA to rip down the championship banners in the Dean Dome. Pat Forde’s article called on the university to bring down the banners while the Wainstein Report was still warm from the copier. The calls to punish UNC didn’t stay in the sports section. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the well-known trade publication, Macalester College President Brian Rosenberg argued for revoking the university’s accreditation. For Rosenberg, forget the death penalty for athletics. Let’s kill the entire university.
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To the Banner-Chasers and the Accreditation-Revokers, I have a plea from all of us who are concerned about the academic fraud: “Sit down and shut up!”
As a proud graduate of the University of North Carolina, I have watched the unfolding “paper class” scandal with a mixture of dismay, anger, and frustration. As a fan, I have watched the scandal frustrated with the media coverage and the oft-acknowledged failings of the NCAA enforcement process. In this way, I suspect I’m no different than many alumni. However, I am a little different in many alums in that I’m a scholar of higher education. Specifically, I study organizational and policy issues of colleges and universities. For this reason, as a researcher, I’ve felt that I have a special obligation when commenting on this scandal. Even with the prior investigations, it never seemed we had the full story and I didn’t want to comment on incomplete facts. With the release of the Wainstein investigation, I finally feel comfortable in the facts of what occurred to comment.
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