Pity the Whining College Professor: Where’s the ESPN for Physics?

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):

• Nebraska
• Ohio State
• Oklahoma
• Penn State
• Purdue
• Texas
• Texas A&M

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):

• Alabama
• Arkansas
• Florida
• Georgia
• Indiana
• Iowa
• Kansas State
• Michigan
• Michigan State
• Oklahoma State
• Oregon
• Virginia Tech
• Washington
• West Virginia

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.)


  1. I don’t think Dr. Aubrecht is complaining PRIMARILY about the money being made by big-time athletics. (although that may be a secondary gripe) Instead he is likely most bitter, as is this commentor, that academics are not prioritized anymore. University athletics, which by your own admission began as a casual activity for students, has slowly grown to be the dominant aspect of many once-educational institutions. Instead of academics with athletics on the side, it’s athletics for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and academics when and IF there is funding leftover. I am not exaggerating. Neither is Dr. Aubrecht when he says he barely has a travel budget. But if anybody from the football or basketball squads needs (or can plausibly claim to need) a few extra bucks, those bucks are bound to turn up. As evidence, witness the current NCAA initiative to allow a few thousand dollars of “laundry money” each year to student-athletes. The decadence has got to stop. Universities aren’t even universities anymore, just front-groups for athletics. Everyone knows this. They only cover it up with platitudes such as “sports build character” , ” sports build leaders” and other such tripe. Physics — solid-state physics, to be exact — produced the computers that you and I are using this very instant. College sports produce watered-down college educations. You should be ashamed of yourself for endorsing the destruction of vital academic college departments.

    • Mr. Deneen, you’re just as shortsighted as Dr. Aubrecht. My position is focused on solutions and not whining: where are the ideas from the two of you and others to create new formats in education (“edutainment”?) that both entertain and teach and are therefore commercially viable? Athletics has done this; where is the corresponding entrepreneurship in academia . . . or is it limited to the business school? I raised the question about funding of academics vs. athletics: you and Aubrecht should be cheering Ohio State, which takes no money from the state or the university and gives back to both. Academics should be touting OSU’s success to condemn other schools which allocate scarce resources away from academics to athletics.

      Ohio State does not do this and neither do the other seven schools I noted in the article. The rest should be open for discussion . . . which I heartily endorsed.

      By the way, since physics contributed to creating my computer, has Dr. Aubrecht pursued a sponsorship for his conference travel and publishing efforts from Acer, AMD, Apple, Asus, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Samsung, Sony, Sharp or others in the computer trade? You can bet that athletic departments have. Stop whining and get busy. ~ Rich Perelman

  2. This article cherry picks the facts. Sure the Harvard versus Yale football game draws a lot of people. But if you think Harvard is known for and focuses on football like Ohio State you’re wrong. Harvard is known for it’s academic excellence. That’s why you won’t see them spending four million on a football coach.
    Second this article compares apples to oranges. It says only 8 universities made money on their athletic programs. That may be true. But this article was about football. Far more than 8 football programs make money.

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