College athletics is big business. In 2014, college football revenues alone topped $3.4 billion. Combine that with basketball and other sports, and college athletics will generate well over $6 billion in revenues this year. Even at Division II and III schools where sports generate little if any revenue, athletics are critically important to institutions’ brands and success and thus receive significant funding. With many individual athletic program budgets exceeding $100 million, it begs the question – who’s really in charge of all that money?
While schools often employ dozens of administrators to manage their athletic departments, at the end of the day, only one person on campus takes full responsibility for the athletics program – not the athletic director as some might presume, but rather the university president. This is a tall order; after all, most colleges and universities employ thousands of people and operate on budgets in excess of a billion dollars. How do college and university presidents juggle managing dozens of academic units, answering to hundreds of different constituencies and still find the time, energy and wherewithal to stay integrally involved in the business of college athletics?
The answer is, in fact, that there are many different answers. Depending on the level which the university participates in college sports, coupled with the overall goal of the institution, often dictates how its president approaches the day to day management of its athletic program. While you would be hard-pressed to find any university that holds athletic success above academic success, it is not uncommon to find situations in higher education where it appears that the tail is wagging the dog. There is little denying the importance that athletics plays in the overall campus environment, and as we recently saw with the University of Missouri, sports can be at the very center of critical campus conversations and a catalyst for academic and social change. Presidents need to give sports special priority while also keeping them somewhat in perspective.
How do university presidents manage the dynamic of academics and athletics on campus? Can presidents be too hands-on? How does money factor into their decision-making process regarding sports? Do competing interests and priorities on campus cause friction between presidents and athletic directors?
To gain insight, we asked presidents from all levels of college athletics how they manage large universities and successful athletic departments at the same time. While each leader takes their own, unique, approach to management, there a number of common themes that arise regardless of their institutions overall investment in sports. Our interview subjects include: Lou Anna Simon –President of Michigan State University; Jim Danko – President of Butler University; Michael Shonrock –President of Lindenwood University; and Biddy Martin – President of Amherst College.
What is the relationship between university presidents and athletic departments like?
Lou Anna Simon: I pay the same attention to my athletic director as I do the university’s key administrators, including deans. I need to understand their worlds, from their perspectives, including the reputational and economic implications. Admittedly it’s a little bit easier dealing with academic units because the criteria for judging success and the business model of each college are much more similar than those for intercollegiate athletics. But new presidents often make a mistake by magnifying these differences. Rather, you have to view them as a tightly interconnected ecosystem with common values and with athletics as the front porch of the university.
That being said, while it may take more time to understand athletics, it doesn’t mean that you have to over-analyze every news article and every tweet that comes out criticizing the program. If one of your professors is being criticized, you should be worried. If it’s your football coach, you probably shouldn’t think too much about it. That doesn’t mean you ignore it, but you have to see the forest for the trees and remember that sports are going to get a lot more coverage than medieval history. If you’re consistent with your values and your culture across the university, you’re going to turn out okay.
Jim Danko: I can only speak from four years of presidential experience. With two conference transitions, the loss of arguably one of the best college coaches in the country in Brad Stevens, and a $35m renovation of Hinkle Fieldhouse, my learning curve was steep. When I took over at Butler, we had just been to back-to-back Final 4’s and were riding an amazing wave of exposure for the university. Other schools often cite what happened to us as justification for their own spending on athletics. What they don’t realize is that my predecessors made a strategic decision in the 1990s to invest in basketball and only years later did we begin to see increased on-the-court performance and thus a great return on investment. Change happens slowly in academia, and it’s no different on the athletics side either.
Michael Shonrock: After spending much of my career in higher education, it has become apparent that academia and athletics are much more closely joined at the hip than ever before. There has always been a lot of interest in college athletics, but it’s becoming clearer that there is a bottom line to higher education overall and the visibility of athletics is bringing greater attention to that fact. Furthermore, the expectations have changed tremendously in college athletics in terms of accountability and pressures. Presidents simply can’t treat the athletics department as just another university unit, because the consequences of a misstep are far greater where all eyes congregate.
Biddy Martin: I’ve been at three entirely different institutions over the last few decades. I was provost at Cornell for eight years, then Chancellor at Wisconsin-Madison, and now president of Amherst for the past four. There’s obviously a tremendous difference between institutions like Wisconsin and Amherst – the integration of athletics at the Division III level is wholly different than on the Division I level. Athletics is subordinate in importance to academics here at Amherst; but the students, coaches and athletic directors are also less separated from the College, partly because of scale and partly because of mission. Winning is not our first priority; we care more about the added value athletics brings to the overall student experience. That being said, we are very competitive on the athletics side and aim to win.
Do presidents tend to be too hands-on or hands-off in their dealings with their ADs and athletic departments?
Lou Anna Simon: I always ask myself, if I were the athletic director, what would I do? How would I want the president to both support the goals of the department and hold me accountable for the university’s values and the performance of the program? It helps me to calibrate whether I’m intruding too much on the day-to-day operation of any unit. When you have a trusting relationship with leadership on your campus, ADs included, people tend to bring issues to you because they want your advice and counsel. You have to strive for transparent communication in all aspects of your leadership. I want to know if there’s going to be a “surprise.” I don’t want to be blindsided. People are going to make mistakes, in well-meaning ways. That’s why we work every day to build a culture of high performance and integrity. But I at least want people to have the courage and confidence to tell me what the challenges and vulnerabilities are.
Jim Danko: While I’m highly engaged with athletics, it isn’t necessarily disproportionate to other areas of the university. I communicate with my athletic director at least once a week, and we meet in person a handful of times during the month depending on the season.
Michael Shonrock: As my attorney likes to say, “It depends”. You obviously hire the most competent and experienced person possible for the athletic director position. They operate much like deans, where they have autonomy to make critical decisions and hire the right staff, but as a president it is still my job to be engaged and visible. Athletics is critical to the overall education mission, and even though it makes up a small part of the overall university budget, it heightens our visibility and creates a common language among varying constituencies around campus. I would never micromanage my other department heads, but in the end I’m vicariously liable for their decisions and so it is in my best interest to be as involved as I can.
Biddy Martin: I think it’s pretty well understood that presidents need to have open, honest and working relationships with their athletic directors. I don’t think presidents should get into the business of micromanaging athletics any more than they would an academic department. But I also think being completely hands-off off makes little sense. Assuming you have open communication, and the athletic director is willing to report the good with the bad, and understands the school’s priorities, it will be a successful situation. That being said, it’s important to have an athletic director that is a trusted advisor, and that is part of the leadership team of the entire institution. At a place like Amherst, where academics is the coin of the realm, but the athletics program is strong, the campus integration of all programs is vital. The AD on our campus understands the overall mission of the school, and appreciates the role of faculty in athletics. We have at least one faculty member at our institution that works with each individual team, serving as a resource for the athletes and helping the coaches understand the importance of academics.
There’s often a perception that money figures inordinately into decisions regarding athletics, even at Division II and III levels. Your thoughts?
Michael Shonrock: The short answer is yes; in an institution like ours we have a very large, robust athletics program. While we aren’t allowed to offer as many scholarships as a Division I institution per sport, we also sponsor more sports than the average school at that DI level, and thus are responsible for an equal amount of dollars as much larger schools. Moreover, as a private institution we are tuition-driven, and we have to be very careful where we are investing our money. That being said, investing in athletics often has a higher ROI than in other university programs. Student-athletes on average have higher GPAs and graduation rates than the general student body, and so there’s always a temptation to put money towards athletics first.
Biddy Martin: I wouldn’t say that is true at all. None of our sports are revenue-generating, and we have no expectation that they will ever become so. Our athletics program operates on a budget that does not increase in ways that affect the rest of the school. All things being equal, academics takes precedence at the college when it comes to fundraising and financials. We have an unofficial policy in place that we will respond to offers from potential donors to make changes to facilities only if that facility is already on our priority list, and only if the donors are willing to cover the full cost of the project, even if that project goes over budget. We had someone approach us about our football facilities unexpectedly and we then determined that renovation of the fieldhouse was high on the list of priorities for the athletics department and the project was worthwhile. We then sought additional donors in supplementing the project, and eventually were able to see it through to completion. Yet had we not received that initial unsolicited offer, it probably would have taken longer for those upgrades to happen because athletics almost always ranks below academic-related priorities.
Jim Danko: At Butler, we do what’s necessary to make sure we are staying competitive in all aspects of our university, regardless of whether it’s academic or athletic. That being said, we still have to find ways of raising money for any project we undertake, and wouldn’t necessarily prioritize one department over another. For instance, when I had just taken over, Hinkle Fieldhouse needed a major renovation to the tune of $35 million, and we had none of the money committed to make it happen. The campaign experts told us we might get 13 to 14 million and should do a multi-stage renovation. [Director of Athletics] Barry (Collier) and I sat down and asked whether we thought we could do more. We attacked it with full force, but admittedly most of the credit goes to Barry. We were able to raise $20 million from the onset and that put us way ahead of schedule. More importantly, it was never a zero-sum game. We figured out how to make the pie larger, not cut it up into more pieces.
I will admit that we’ve had a lot of [athletic] changes in just the few short years I’ve been here which have been driven by both competitive and financial considerations. We went from the Horizon League to the Atlantic 10 to the Big East. As you can imagine, there was an incredible amount of work that went into managing those transitions, and Barry was masterful in doing so. He’s been around college athletics for a long time, and was simply invaluable to the university and to me during those transitions.
Presidents and Athletic Directors have long been seen as different breeds, each rising up through their respective ranks. Does this create inherent friction in their relationship?
Lou Anna Simon: If you look at Division I, presidents are being hired more and more with a business skill-set or competency to manage units such as athletics. At the same time, 99 percent of our jobs are academic focused. There is always going to be a creative tension with athletics and the other units, but that’s because of the public attention that athletics draws over academics. The contentions and frictions are usually most evident in fundraising. Faculty and administrators are often worried that dollars are being taken away from academics and being pumped into athletics. That may be one of the biggest jobs of a president, trying to make sure there’s an appropriate balance in areas like university advancement and resource allocation. In any case, the AD is part of our core vice president group and is viewed as a university administrator, not just an athletic administrator.
Jim Danko: I can see that being the case at larger schools, or in situations in which a president has a more academic background and perceives that athletics is “out of control” and taking up to much attention. I take a very broad-based approach to management so my athletic director and I are very much in sync. We work closely to engage our trustees on what our athletic strategy should be. These days, the stakes and costs of college athletics are higher than ever. In my opinion, athletic directors were not fully utilized in decades past because of the dependency on conference commissioners. They are now being integrated more into the decision-making of not only athletics, but also academic areas of the university. Thus my athletic director and I have an obligation to each other to make sure we are on the same page when it comes to issues concerning our university.
Michael Shonrock: While most ADs and presidents take different paths to the top, I don’t necessarily think that there is a conflict. It’s more of a mutually beneficial relationship in which there are strengths. Yes athletic administrators are more revenue-driven, but their bottom line is the graduate student-athletes first and foremost, and so they will be held accountable for that above all else.
With the amount of attention given to compliance and regulation in college sports, should a president be more involved in this area?
Lou Anna Simon: I think the new organization of the NCAA Division I is trying to find a balance between the big overarching framework that really matters to the future of college athletics and the rules that are relatively less important. You have to be on top of things, but it doesn’t mean you have to be involved in the minutia. You must strive to build a culture of compliance, blending high performance with integrity. You can’t put athletics on auto-pilot, no matter how successful your program or team is. Whether you like it or not, athletics weighs heavily on the reputation of the university. I think presidents have to work to make both worlds (athletics and academics) one team aligned by values, goals and transparent accountability.
Jim Danko: I view compliance in the same light as violence on campus. When I speak with Barry, we say, “This happened at another university, now how can we prevent it from happening at ours?” We have to stay ahead of it and I need to know whether my AD has the resources to deal with and mitigate these issues. Any good leader knows that you can’t just assume someone will take responsibility; you have to make sure your employees are staying on top of things. Likewise, I don’t pretend that I’m qualified to run every department t at Butler, but it’s my responsibility to know enough about what’s happening to insure that the people I tap to lead them are doing their jobs correctly.
Does a president need to be a booster? Is it important to attend sporting events and to make one’s presence felt around athletics?
Lou Anna Simon: I’m a “leadership by walking around” type of person. I like to show up at places and talk to people, go to various campus events whether they’re academic, cultural or athletic. Obviously athletics helps us rally donors in a unique way, but I also have to be cognizant of not being “too much of a fan” that it biases my ability to make decisions that are best for the university as a whole.
Michael Shonrock: Absolutely! Let’s not forget that college athletics offers the ultimate platform to engage with students, alumni and other people within the university community. If you’re going to raise money, then people have to know who you are. The average person doesn’t get to meet the president of their Alma mater, and so athletic events provides that opportunity to create an introduction and for people to become acquainted. I also think that sometimes there’s a perception that some presidents aren’t really approachable, but that’s really not the case. Every so often, I go to a cultural event on campus and someone walks up to me and says “thanks for coming.” I can’t help but laugh to think, “Well, it’s my job.”