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 multi-million-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 single-photon transistor — a key piece of the puzzle in the development of quantum-compatible 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.