Creating a strong sense of community for students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends is crucial to building a strong university. There are many avenues through which communities are built, but one that is undeniably powerful for public research universities is intercollegiate athletics.
Members of our community foster and build pride as participants in, and spectators of, intercollegiate competition. Scholarship support provides opportunity for student athletes that might otherwise go unrealized. An intercollegiate athletics program that is well conceived, intelligently led and managed to the best interests of students has great value. Little is more harmful to a university than a poorly run, ill conceived, misdirected athletics program. Thankfully that is not the case at our university.
Similarly, nothing is more important in trumpeting excellence than accomplishments in teaching, research, scholarly, and creative work that garners national attention. Sustained growth in research expenditures, appointments to the national academies, membership of faculty and staff in scholarly and learned societies, attainment of prestigious scholarships, such as the Rhodes, Truman, or Mitchell, and consistent growth in endowment assets all pronounce clearly the aspirations of our university.
Some believe that increasing athletic prowess will have a positive impact on enrollment. As long as the central mission is not sacrificed to attain distinction in athletics, titles and trophies won’t hurt, but they will never be a substitute for academic excellence.
Athletics programs are thought to be income generators for the campus. This is the case for the host communities to the campus, taxing bodies, the restaurants, the hotels, the bookstores, and other service organizations that thrive on campus activity, but not the campus. Athletics programs cannot exist without subsidies in the form of student fees, payroll, infrastructure and state resources.
That is the way it is.
Follow the money carefully. There are only a dozen public research universities that legitimately “make money” on intercollegiate athletics. Interestingly, every one of them is also an academic powerhouse. Michigan may be the best example but the return on investment, even there, is small. Illinois does not do it.
I would never suggest that our intercollegiate athletics efforts should be anything but the best our university can offer. It builds community, even if it does not provide revenue for the campus, or increase enrollment. It can build positive pride, or it can generate hubris. Only in the rarest of cases does it build capital.
Positive pride has value for a university. At General Motors corporate pride, while important, plays second fiddle to quarterly reports and stock value. At our university pride of moderately significant academic indicator of perceived value. Nothing else.
Institutional pride is the foundation for student and faculty quality, and it must be constructed of many stones, only one of them is intercollegiate competition. Subsidized athletics is a good investment if, and only if, it serves our academic mission. At some institutions the quest for athletic dominance has come at great cost, but that need not be the case. In fact, at our university student athletes carry better grade point averages than the general student population.
The combination of athletics and academics is a powerful one-two punch for pride…but we can give it away if we are not careful.
Properly led, the investment can be a very good one. Our university needs to build community and a well run intercollegiate athletics program helps do just that.