Are University Presidents Really in Charge?
Brad Wolverton and Andrea Fuller of the Chronicle of Higher Education filed a report recently that demonstrates a disturbing trend among major American universities: that college presidents may not have clear authority over their athletic programs at their schools. Reviewing the contractual language of the presidents and chancellors of the 25 schools with the largest athletic programs in the country, they found that not one head administrator had explicit powers of oversight over sports. This includes schools that have faced major NCAA sanctions in recent months, such as Penn State, where even new president Rodney A. Erickson does not have power over the bruised athletics department. When it comes to sports, presidents tend to use the lack of specific contractual language to avoid “rock[ing] to boat with boards, benefactors, and political supporters who want to win.”
Recently, the NCAA’s Board of Directors put forth a proposal that would allow them to specifically name presidents of universities and others with oversight of athletics in infractions findings even if the individuals were not directly involved in the allegations. Clearly the NCAA itself assumes that leaders of universities have control over their athletics departments, but it seems that in fact as well as practice, this is often not the case. An anonymous president is referenced in The Chronicle story arguing that he did not want contractual language about athletics because he felt that doing so would be to hold himself responsible for things and people outside his control.
There is something seriously wrong with the picture painted in Wolverton and Fuller’s article. One of the most visible branches of many American universities appears to be without real oversight so long as the teams win. This winning-first culture is a large part of the problem facing many major universities who are facing sanctions against their athletic departments. Sports are part of the college experience, but many of the individuals entrusted with the maintenance of these institutions do not want to take on the responsibility of policing the most public face of the school. In doing so, presidents and chancellors are opening themselves and, more importantly, their schools to a damaged reputation and to strong critique from outside. It is the job of these presidents and chancellors to maintain and improve their institutions of higher learning and to do so they must take control of the sports programs.