LOS ANGELES, Jan. 27, 2012 – The New York Times ran a long article by author Laura Pappano a week ago entitled How Big-Time Sports Ate College Life, which included these missiles from a couple of midwestern academics:
Ohio State boasts 17 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, three Nobel laureates, eight Pulitzer Prize winners, 35 Guggenheim Fellows and a MacArthur winner. But sports rule.
“It’s not, ‘Oh, yeah, Ohio State, that wonderful physics department.’ It’s football,” said Gordon Aubrecht, an Ohio State physics professor.
Last month, Ohio State hired Urban Meyer to coach football for $4 million a year plus bonuses (playing in the B.C.S. National Championship game nets him an extra $250,000; a graduation rate over 80 percent would be worth $150,000). He has personal use of a private jet.
Dr. Aubrecht says he doesn’t have enough money in his own budget to cover attendance at conferences. “From a business perspective,” he can see why Coach Meyer was hired, but he calls the package just more evidence that the “tail is wagging the dog.”
Dr. Aubrecht is not just another cranky tenured professor. Hand-wringing seems to be universal these days over big-time sports, specifically football and men’s basketball. Sounding much like his colleague, James J. Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan and author of “Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University,” said this: “Nine of 10 people don’t understand what you are saying when you talk about research universities. But you say ‘Michigan’ and they understand those striped helmets running under the banner.”
I think Pappano has it all wrong. Aubrecht is another cranky, tenured professor. In fact, his comments epitomize the crankiness of academics whose inability to adapt to today’s culture, media environment and the vast opportunities attendant to them and dooms them to local, regional, national and international invisibility. That is, of course, outside of their own field of study and the students who are unfortunate enough to have to take their classes.
How so? Consider:
The enormous expansion in coaching salaries, ticket prices and national television (and other media) exposure is a fairly recent phenomenon. It has been fueled in significant part by deregulation of the television industry and the enormous expansion of cable television and, now, the Internet. As long as advertisers and viewers support a channel, it will prosper. That’s what is driving increased revenues in college sports and increased spending.
Noting this trend, universities have tried to cash in . . . some of them quite stupidly, with the resulting loss of monies that could be spent elsewhere on campus. That’s a local failure, not a failure of colleges as a whole, and chancellors and university presidents should be held accountable. But the trend is unmistakable.
Even the Ivy League, about which Pappano refers to its founding agreement that its student-athletes “enjoy the game as participants in a form of recreational competition rather than as professional performers in public spectacles,” has recently entered into an agreement with Versus (now the NBC Sports Network) to televise multiple football games each fall. The Harvard -Yale game is still a spectacle: 55,137 attended the 2011 edition in New Haven.
If whiners like Aubrecht are unhappy with the exposure they receive, where are their plans to increase revenues? Where is his plan for a Physics Channel? Or an Ohio State academic channel? Are there not television facilities on-campus and in Columbus, Ohio?
And if his classes and field of study are so uninteresting as to draw no interest, why is he in a tenured position? Shouldn’t he be excused and replaced with lower-cost lecturers in the topic . . . if it is to be taught at Ohio State at all?
One more aspect to consider: some of the more entrepreneurial university professors are now being expensively recruited by campuses because of the research funding they attract, often from public institutions such as the U.S. Government. How much of their income is from grants and other non-university-provided funding, and where is the public posting of their contracts? How many hours per week do they spend teaching and how many hours in for-profit research? Urban Meyer’s deal with Ohio State is quite public; what about Professor Aubrecht?
In any case, Aubrecht especially shouldn’t be complaining, but praising Ohio State’s financial approach to athletics. OSU is one of only eight schools out of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision institutions which in the 2009-10 school year (a) took in more money than they spent on intercollegiate athletics and (b) received no subsidies from their university’s general fund or student’s fees. These schools are (in alphabetical order):
These schools deserve our congratulations on being both self-sustaining, and in the case of Ohio State, giving money to the university annually in the form of scholarship funds!
The USA Today list which noted the eight schools that had surpluses without subsidies also noted another 22 schools which had a surplus from their intercollegiate athletic programs, but which received at least some money from the university or its students (alphabetically):
There were a number of other schools with balanced budgets that were not noted, but it is also true that only 22 out of 228 NCAA Division I schools showed a surplus of revenues over expenses in intercollegiate athletics for the 2009-10 academic year.
In my view, that’s what should be looked at. If an intercollegiate athletics program balances its budget, or makes money, without the use of university funds, criticism rings hollow. Where university funds are used, the question of priorities is open for discussion.
But envy solves nothing. In a country where there are many all-sports networks, but also dozens of quite profitable channels given over to news, finance and even government and history (not to mention the three excellent non-profit channels of C-SPAN), the energy wasted on whining would be much better spent in developing new ways of bringing science, literature and philosophy to the public.
(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)