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Summit: Faculty Challenged to Get Off Athletic Sidelines and Get Involved

Washington, D.C.

In response to the recently released Knight Foundation survey showing that higher education faculty care little about college athletics, a group of nationally recognized experts meeting here urged them to rethink their attitudes and lack of involvement. 

The gathering, the Faculty Summit on Intercollegiate Athletics, brought together leading faculty governance leaders from across the nation to interpret and explain the survey’s surprising results.

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics commissioned the survey. Among the survey’s findings was the feeling among faculty that athletic decisions on campus are being driven by the demands of the entertainment industry and that they were dissatisfied with their roles in athletics governance.

“We shouldn’t have any illusions about the ability of faculty to significantly change what is going on today,” said Gary Roberts, dean of Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis. A former director of the sports law program and faculty athletic representative at Tulane University, Roberts’ assessment of the futility of the situation stood in stark contrast to other panelists who, while acknowledging serious structural problems, believed that well-conceived efforts could change things.

“I do believe that we’ve got a lot of evidence that change can come about and that faculty do care about these issues,” said Dr. Carol Simpson Stern, a past president of the American Association of University Professors.

She recalled that when the subject of new approaches and reform to college athletics was included on the agenda at an AAUP national meeting the room was so overcrowded that attendees had to stand in the hallway. Unless faculty get involved and not entirely capitulate, the entire university could suffer irreparable harm to its academic reputation. This was a common theme heard from attendees and panelists during the session. In the search for such new and imaginative thinking, Stern, a professor of performance studies at Northwestern University, along with University of South Carolina-Columbia Provost Mark Becker, drew a strong reaction from the audience when they suggested that a dialogue about offering a major in “sports performance” should at least be considered.

“We have majors in all types of performance arts so why not at least take a look at sports performance as a way of capturing, documenting and assessing what is learned in the athletic experiences of these young people who we ask so much of,” said Becker who admits that he was only echoing a theme he read about in the New York Times a few years ago.  

Anita DeFranz, president and board member of the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angles, said that she was fascinated with the idea of such a major and would give it serious consideration.

“We’ve got to get away from that mind-body duality that is present today whereby the athletes are all body and the rest of the university is all mind,” said the pioneering athlete who won a bronze medal in rowing in the 1976 Olympics. She also questioned why the survey didn’t look at race, which she felt played a large role in  faculty perceptions about college athletics.

All of the concerns and talk about reform will soon be put to the test due to a set of rules that had their origins with the Knight Commission some 18 years ago.

Dr. William Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland, said two of the most tangible barometers of the seriousness lie on the immediate horizon. The first will be the whether colleges could stem the ever-widening influence of commercialization of collegiate athletics, including recent attempts to market the images of high-profile student athletes. The second will be whether colleges will enforce the upcoming penalties associated with poor graduation rates that are due to take place next spring. 

Faculty Rankings of Priorities for Campus Faculty Governance Groups

  1. Resources for Research (quality of labs, institutional grants)
  2. Graduate Programs (curriculum rigor, resources)
  3. Undergraduate Programs (curriculum rigor, resources)
  4. Faculty Salaries and Benefits (salary compression, health benefits)
  5. Financial Health of Institution (revenue levels, deferred benefits)
  6. Faculty Personnel Policies (use of non-tenure track faculty, promotion and tenure)
  7. Access to affordability of Undergraduate education (institutional financial aid, outreach to students and families)
  8. Undergraduate educational policies (admission standards, advising)
  9. Racial Equity (in employment, admissions)
  10. Gender Equity (in employment, admissions)
  11. Commercialization of research (intellectual properties, joint ventures with private business)
  12. Intercollegiate Athletics (student-athlete well-being, finance)
  13. Greek Life (initiation activities, Town Gown relationships)


–Frank Matthews

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