October 10, 2012
By and large I admire The Association of Governing Boards (AGB), the higher education association that informs and supports members of the boards of trustees of colleges and universities. AGB has good publications (including their magazine, Trusteeship) and holds good workshops to help board members understand their role in governance.
But like nearly all other higher education associations, AGB can stoop to the level of gaseous utterance, as it has in releasing a new report entitled “Trust, Accountability, and Integrity: Board Responsibilities for Intercollegiate Athletics.”
The provocation for the report is the mess at Penn State stemming from the misdeeds of Jerry Sandusky, who was recently sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison for acts of child sexual abuse. A report by Louis Freeh (former FBI Director) that had been commissioned by the Penn State Trustees faulted Penn State President Graham Spanier for failing to keep the Penn State Board sufficiently informed about the unfolding scandal, and had faulted the Board for not pressing Spanier to tell them more.
The new report is based on a survey conducted by AGB administered to trustees of NCAA Division I universities. It is telling, isn’t it, that trustees of Division II and III institutions were not also surveyed. It is an admission that the problems with intercollegiate athletics emanate from Division I universities. And it is equally telling that AGB worked with the NCAA in developing the report, as if the NCAA were not the very organization that insures that the indefensible enterprise of Division I athletics continues undisturbed.
In sum and substance, the report urges trustees to have good policies on oversight of intercollegiate athletics and to be sure to follow them.
Surely we didn’t need to be told that, did we? No one doubts we should have good policies on intercollegiate athletics and that these should be followed. Put simply, the problems with Division I athletics stem not from a failure of understanding but rather from a failure of will. The question isn’t what is the right thing to do, but rather how can we summon the courage and strength to do the right thing.
Take a President of a Division I university at random. Had we access to her/his innermost thoughts, we surely would know they would like to rein in the excesses of intercollegiate athletics. Why don’t they? Because the personal cost would be too high. Because they would be unable to pursue any other goals for their university. Because they
suspect know that they could not rely on the backing of their board of trustees. So Presidents hope that athletics messes won’t be too severe on their watch and attend to other matters.
AGB could have said something much more courageous. It could have said that Division I athletics undermine the missions of universities. It could have pointed to the NCAA as both symptom and accelerator of the rot. AGB has standing that could have allowed them to say something strong and clear. But this report is just blowing hot air.