College athletics is big time commercial entertainment, source of much fan passion and media attention, and just plain fun. All of it is important to a university campus, and all of it is important to maintain. But only if athletics on campus at its core delineates the substance, scope, and contours of the activity, not simply where the activity is located. To assure the centrality of the greater campus in college athletics and to recalibrate the balance between athletics and academics for student-athletes, a much-needed reset currently is underway.
Athletic directors manage multi-million dollar, increasingly complex, athletic departments with hundreds of employees. They are experienced, savvy, and knowledgeable about all facets of the enterprise they manage. They have a working knowledge of how the overall campus, colleges and departments run, but their knowledge is that of an outsider.
Faculty Athletics Representatives (FARs) are members of the faculty typically appointed by their presidents (much like ADs). They have no bottom line to meet – their mission is teaching and scholarship. They understand the campus and the intricacies of the academic enterprise and mission. They have a working knowledge of campus athletics, how the basics work, but their knowledge is also that of an outsider. As athletics and academics on campus are conjoined, so too must be the FAR and the AD.
Undoubtedly presidential control of athletics is critical. Presidents are charged with the administration of a university and only they can resolve disagreements between the athletics department, academic administration and faculty of a university. This requires careful balancing between the needs of the athletic department and the requisites of the academic mission. But presidents have a full plate of time-demanding responsibilities and do not (and cannot) individually manage all campus departments and all aspects of campus life. Instead, they delegate to vice presidents and college deans.
In terms of the athletics department, the athletic director is the equivalent of the college dean. But when the “front porch” of the campus misfires, it can inflict much more serious and lasting damage on a university than a scandal in the English department or medical school. That means that a president also must have an active “outside-athletics” eye on athletics. Enter the Faculty Athletic Representative.
In the beginning, FARs served fully in the stead of the president in all matters concerning the conference and NCAA. They reflected the perspective of the president in policy making and in dealing with those constituencies with which a president interacts – faculty, alumni, donors, fans, and university governance.
Then, in 1998, Division I moved to an organizational model where conferences had votes, rather than each university. This move put Presidents in the forefront of Conference governance and gave them an active, hands-on role in the NCAA legislative process. Their delegation to FARs in these matters ceased (or at the very least became more limited) with regard to NCAA policy and decision-making.
On the positive side, the new Division I model meant presidents were able to move the national agenda quickly and brook no interference. Strong, positive, academic reform resulted. But the new Division I model also demanded more time and hands-on attention than presidents were able to give. The NCAA regulatory process is complex and the meaning, scope, and ancillary effects of legislative proposals are not always self-evident. Even the most engaged presidents are unlikely to have adequate time and sufficient background fully to consider all ramifications of policy initiatives.
The most recent iteration of the Division I model has returned control of the legislative agenda to those more directly involved with athletics day to day. Unfortunately, however, that return of control has almost completely erased FARs from the NCAA mix. The result: the overall campus voice is muted.
No issue regarding college athletics is exclusively athletic or academic, with the exception of matters such as where the three-point line should be located in basketball and what classroom will be used for Physics 101. Any attempt to cabin issues into one or another silo negatively impacts policy articulation and problem solution.
FARs and athletic directors share the same goals for college athletics and student-athletes. Both are committed to the well-being of student-athletes, to their academic and athletic success. Both want student-athletes and their teams to have competitive success. Both have responsibility to assure that athletics fits within the campus ethos and that athletic programs and staff are compliant with NCAA and conference rules, federal and state law. Both share concern about the myriad external threats posed to the collegiate model of athletics.
The different experiences, backgrounds, and job responsibilities of FARs and athletic directors give them different perspectives on how to achieve shared goals. Both voices are needed to explore the pluses and minuses of particular policy initiatives and the consequences that may flow from their adoption. The best solutions are always ones that bring all perspectives to the table to discuss, argue, consider alternatives, and then to come to resolution. That is particularly true today, when the loud and incessant drumbeat is that college athletics are really professional and college athletes are not college students.
When the relationship works well, FARs supplement and support the athletic operation and give credence and confidence to the presence and actions of athletics on campus. They give faculty and the president the assurance that there is an active external eye on athletics, one that is informed regarding athletic operations and NCAA rules. At the same time, their association with athletics means that FARs can appreciate the particular stresses and issues with which athletic directors deal. They therefore can serve as bridge (and sometimes translator) between the academic side of the campus and the athletic side. They can bolster compliance, academic support, and other athletic efforts by acting as stopgap (and place to point a finger) when unpopular initiatives must be undertaken.
For the relationship to work well, the FAR must be supportive of athletics even as they provide neutral outside-athletics oversight. To perform both roles, the FAR must acknowledge the potential conflict and work hard to attain and maintain the confidence of the athletic director and athletics staff and persuade them that they are not an agent provocateur but rather there to provide a faculty voice and at times a different perspective. The FAR also must be clear that ultimate loyalty must be to the President and to the University.
It is difficult in a large university for the FAR and athletic director to keep each other in the loop. This is particularly true when the FAR’s academic department is not on the same campus with athletic facilities and offices. Clearly the right hand needs to know what all the left hand is doing. Equally clearly, this takes work when the right and left hands are all very busy, live in different buildings, and often on different campuses.
Contrary to the old maxim, familiarity breeds increased trust. The FAR needs to spend time in the athletic facility and with the athletics staff, and not simply at formal meetings and with formal purposes. The FAR should try to travel with athletic teams as this provides informal interaction with coaches and also the opportunity for interaction with student-athletes.
There also are formal structures that can help communication. Among those employed at some universities:
- The FAR and athletic director have formal, regularly scheduled meetings with each other and together with the President.
- The FAR is an ex officio member of the athletic director’s executive staff and attends staff meetings.
- The FAR has an office in the athletics facility.
- The FAR meets regularly with the compliance and academic services staff, and there is a clear understanding that compliance and academic athletic services need to inform the FAR of any developing issues.
All the external “noise” and all the external pressures facing college athletics demand a unified approach from the greater campus and athletic department. A positive, mutually supportive working relationship between FAR and athletic director can go a long way to maintain, enhance, and showcase the positive values of collegiate athletics.