Faculty vs. athletics: Fighting for control
Connor Johnson, a former longsnapper on the Oregon football team, said it’s a “bummer” how many athletes have to make decisions they don’t want to make due to conflicts with sports.
Almost all the time, he said — whether it’s being unable to enroll in certain majors or take classes that conflict with their practice schedules — athletes are asked to put sports above their education.
“It would be really nice to have the academic people looking out for the athletes so that they’re actually getting a decent education and what they were promised out of high school,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he would be in favor of some faculty oversight when it comes to how the athletic department spends its $120 million budget. Because all the athletic department’s decisions, he said, boil down to money.
There used to be a Senate committee tasked with overseeing the athletic budget, but it was abolished in November 2016. It was called the Intercollegiate Athletics Committee (IAC), and it became so ineffective that then-UO President Michael Gottfredson stopped requiring athletic department representatives to show up to meetings.
Several former IAC members described the meetings as “contentious” and “antagonistic.” A few particular faculty members, they said, behaved “inappropriately” and “unprofessionally” when athletic department representatives did not provide sufficient answers to their questions. Meetings sometimes escalated to shouting matches, after which people would leave upset, sometimes in tears.
Now, a new committee, the Intercollegiate Athletics Advisory Committee (IAAC), has taken the IAC’s place. It met for the first time on March 1, and University of Oregon President Michael Schill opened the meeting with a firm message to committee members:
Athletic department finances will not be a topic of discussion.
Tough questions and vague answers
The IAAC’s charge — its stated duty — is to advise the president on athletic department policies and practices that affect the academic performance and welfare of student-athletes. It’s a much narrower version of the the IAC’s charge, which included advising the president and athletic director on the athletic department’s budget. The old IAC charge also required the athletic department to consult the IAC before making decisions that could impact the landscape of athletics or the university at-large.
Faculty Athletics Representative Tim Gleason said the IAC’s charge was “drastically wider and broader than is generally the case” in committees at other Pac-12 and NCAA schools.
“It had all kinds of things in it,” Gleason said. “The charge spoke as if the athletic department reported to the IAC, which it didn’t and doesn’t.” The athletic department reports to the president, not the faculty.
Biology professor Nathan Tublitz, who helped write the IAC charge, argues that any decision made at a university, including by the athletic department, impacts academics and thus should require faculty input. But he said the athletic department for years has made decisions that ran contrary to UO’s academic values, such as moving some sporting events from weekends to school days to cash in on television contracts.
Tublitz said the new committee’s charge is watered down such that IAAC members can’t ask questions about a range of important issues, reducing the faculty’s role in shared governance.
“It’s been muzzled and restricted to a very, very limited set of topics,” Tublitz said. “Unless I’m mistaken, this is still an academic institution that has a sports team, not a sports team that happens to have a small academic sidelight.”
Before Tublitz became IAC chair in 2011, Kurt Krueger, a former classified staff IAC member, said IAC meetings often consisted of presentations from the athletic department about the positive things it was doing for student athletes. Krueger recalled hearing about tutoring services at the Jaqua Center, the O Heroes volunteer program, athlete scholarships and graduate rates. He said the committee gained insight but didn’t actually accomplish much.
That all changed when Tublitz became chair. He, economics professor Bill Harbaugh and a couple other faculty members began digging into athletic department finances and policies and asking “tougher and tougher questions.” They inquired about for-credit classes designed for student athletes but taught by athletic department personnel, bonds to pay for the new basketball arena and university subsidized student-athlete support services at the Jaqua Academic Center, including engraved Macbooks for each athlete and individual tutors for each of their classes.
The root of each of their questions, Tublitz said, was the more fundamental question, “Why are you making a decision that is contrary to our values?” Krueger said the athletic department representatives provided “vague, not very solid answers.” Tublitz and Harbaugh said the athletic department provided minimal answers or none at all.
“The athletic department was extremely hard to deal with and extremely reluctant to release information,” Harbaugh said. “The committee had been dominated for years by people who were quite fond of the athletic department, until Nathan Tublitz and I and a few others started asking hard questions.”
“Ninety-five percent of the time the athletic department just listened and said, ‘Thank you very much, goodbye.’ You could just see their eyes glaze over,” Tublitz said. “There’s no even semblance of listening. And that’s what pisses people off.”
UO Athletic Director Rob Mullens said the athletic department members “were certainly trying” to answer their questions.
“We were doing the best that we could, that’s for sure,” Mullens said. “We were providing the information that fit with the charge of the committee.”
Unprofessionalism and inappropriate behavior
Many former IAC members said the way Harbaugh and Tublitz — but particularly Harbaugh — approached those discussions was not conducive to productive conversation. Human physiology professor Andy Karduna recalled shouting matches between certain faculty and athletic department representatives. Business professor Lynn Kahle said people often left meetings very upset and sometimes in tears.
Mullens said he became “concerned” about how his staff was being treated at meetings. Athletic department staffers told him they sometimes felt like they were being “targeted,” a message Mullens relayed to Gottfredson at their regular meetings.
“There probably were some times when it crossed the line to being unprofessional,” Mullens said. “Some of those meetings I was the target, but that comes with the position.”
Math professor Dev Sinha said Harbaugh and Tublitz’ behavior was characterized by “sophomoric rudeness,” “scoffing and guffawing,” and “a very basic lack of human decency.” He said they sometimes brought factually inaccurate information to discussions and used the committee as a vehicle to generate outrage. The unprofessionalism, he said, was “all one-sided.”
“You know when somebody thinks that you’re less than human. That’s sort of the basic dynamic,” Sinha said. “You know when somebody has no professional or even human respect for you, and that’s still the attitude some of these folks have.”
Harbaugh responded to Sinha’s comments saying:
“Duck athletics makes millions for the coaches and athletic department staff, but only if they can keep their unpaid athletes academically eligible. Given how much money and how much of the university’s reputation is at stake, the IAC — and now the IAAC — has to ask uncomfortable questions of the athletic department. So I’m not surprised that they and their boosters reacted with personal attacks on me, Nathan Tublitz, and some of the other faculty on the IAC.”
A parallel committee
The IAC meetings became unproductive to the point that in March 2014, the IAC chair at the time, Rob Illig, wrote in the IAC’s annual report to the Senate president that the committee was “broken.” He recommended withdrawing the administration’s and athletic department’s involvement, and said the main structural problem was that the IAC was trying to accomplish “two competing goals.”
“It is attempting to be a ‘watchdog’ committee, aimed at ensuring that the athletics department acts in the best interest of the UO community and does not become the tail that wags the dog. At the same time, it is attempting to be an advisory committee, seeking to influence the faculty athletics representative and athletic department as they make important and potentially controversial decisions,” Illig wrote.
“Because it is trying to do both, the IAC is accomplishing neither.”
In response to Illig’s report, President Gottfredson told athletic department representatives they no longer had to attend IAC meetings. Gottfredson then decided to establish a new group, the President’s Advisory Group on Intercollegiate Athletics (PAGIA), that would run parallel to the IAC until the IAC could fix its structural problems.
The PAGIA was ineffective for different reasons. Because the president called the meetings, it only convened four or fives times in two and a half years, even though its charge required it to meet twice per academic quarter. Former PAGIA members can’t remember the exact number of meetings, but they agree it wasn’t often. Kahle say they met on an “as-needed basis.”
The PAGIA also excluded the Senate from the decision-making process. The president appointed his own faculty members, its meetings were held in private and its minutes were not made public.
Meanwhile, the IAC continued to meet regularly and athletic department representatives mostly refused to come. Karduna, who chaired the IAC during the 2015-16 school year, spent the whole year working to create a new committee with a revised charge that would serve as a compromise between the IAC and PAGIA.
A fresh start
In November 2016, Karduna brought his proposal for the IAAC to the Senate. The new committee’s charge would only focus on academic performance and welfare issues related to student-athletes, and the senate would get to select half the faculty members. The senate ended up passing it 30-6.
Harbaugh proposed a motion to keep the IAC around in a “watchdog” capacity, but the Senate voted it down narrowly, 20-18, thus ending the long-standing and troubled committee.
Now there is no senate committee providing faculty oversight on athletic department decisions. Harbaugh said it’s “ridiculous” that faculty shouldn’t have a say over the athletic department’s funding when the athletic department spends $120 million a year and the university’s entire education, research and general fund budget is only around $550 million.
“The athletic department wants us to have no influence over any of those decisions, and that’s not good for the university,” Harbaugh said. “It’s good for the people collecting money for the athletic department, but not the for the university as a whole.”
Karduna, who helped write the charge for and now chairs the IAAC, said although not all constituents are happy with the charge, at least it enables the faculty to have productive conversations about issues they can actually impact. He’s not against a faculty committee that examines athletic department finances, but said such a committee should not be under the same umbrella as one that deals with student-athlete academic performance and welfare. Sinha, Kahle and Gleason agreed.
When asked whether he thinks faculty should have a role in athletic department decisions, Rob Mullens did not answer the question.
“That’s not for me to decide,” Mullens said. “My job is to run the athletic department.”
Follow Kenny Jacoby on Twitter @kennyjacoby