Athletics Reform Is Possible With a Big Assist From Boards

Focus on the Presidency column written by Tulane President Scott S. Cowen
July/August 2005

College sports command board attention because of their power to influence the institution’s reputation.

There is little disputing that big-time college athletics can be at odds with the mission of higher education. Increased commercialization, especially in the major sports of football and basketball, and a seemingly insatiable appetite for greater visibility and revenue not only have sullied the reputations of various universities but also have led to diminished respect for the integrity of our entire higher education system.

But hope is on the horizon.

High-profile athletics scandals—academic, ethical and administrative—have galvanized both the NCAA and university presidents to take action. The result has been new policies focused on student-athlete recruitment, welfare and academic performance. These initiatives, combined with the pivotal role now being played by presidents in the overall governance of intercollegiate athletics, promise to help restore integrity to college sports.

If trustees also become engaged in these processes as part of their oversight function, athletics can find their natural equilibrium within the overall academic missions of our universities and colleges. This is the ultimate goal of intercollegiate athletics reform—to have college sports serve as one integral part of a university’s overall mission, not to have it overshadow or diminish that mission.

From my perspective, academic reform is essential because it holds the promise of making the word “student” meaningful in the phrase “student-athlete.” For decades, the NCAA has dealt with various academic issues, producing evolving standards for initial and continuing eligibility of student-athletes. Now, after years of study and discussion, it has developed a comprehensive package of standards, methods and incentives to guide academic reform. The key ingredient of this package is a new formula for measuring academic performance, known as the Academic Progress Rate or APR, and a system of meaningful rewards and penalties.

The APR is intended as a real-time annual snapshot of the academic performance of every team at each Division I college or university. Each year, an institution will receive a report containing the APR for all of its teams. If a team’s APR falls below a certain score, now calculated to be 925 out of 1,000, it may be subject to certain penalties in the form of lost scholarships for a year. Chronic academic performance shortfalls can lead to stiffer penalties, including ineligibility for postseason play.

In the NCAA’s first APR-revised report, issued in May, about six percent (363 teams) of the total number of college teams fell below the penalty line.

As expected, there are critics of the reform agenda. Some say the system is monolithic and ignores the unique characteristics of each sport and the missions of particular universities. They also warn that it will force universities to further dilute their curricular options for student-athletes or lead to grade inflation. Supporters, by contrast, believe the policy is a positive starting point for change and discussion and that it will will evolve and improve over time.

Intercollegiate athletics reform can be successful only if it is understood and supported by trustees. From my experience, trustee involvement in athletics ranges from benign neglect by those uninterested in sports to invasive micromanagement by unabashed boosters. AGB is leading the way in encouraging appropriate board involvement, having published its “Statement on Board Responsibilities for Intercollegiate Athletics.”

At a minimum, board members need to (1) be informed about the relevant athletics-related issues, (2) expect transparency from university leadership on the topic, and (3) demand accountability in addressing issues—all the while supporting their president. Even though athletics constitutes a relatively small part of any university’s overall budget, trustees should devote careful attention to the topic because of its external visibility and its power to influence institutional reputation and financial standing. Board members should regularly review their institution’s athletics programs in an objective manner consistent with their concern for the well-being of the institution as a whole. Begin with a focus on the academic performance of student-athletes because, in the end, that is most important to maintaining the integrity of the collegiate model.

Genuine change is possible if trustees and presidents summon the fortitude to do their part and the NCAA keeps continuous reform as its highest priority.

Scott S. Cowen is president of Tulane University.

Section: Focus on the Presidency
Volume 13, Number 4, Page 5