The importance of sports to a university
The importance of sports to a university
Many university faculty members accept sports' role on campus
By Scott Travis
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted January 7 2007
Most days, University of Florida professor Danaya Wright believes she works at a place where academic excellence is the top priority.
But then come those fall Fridays.
Faculty are forced to move their cars on home game weekends. Their parking spaces are rented to tailgaters.
Students ask to skip class so they can prepare for the home game or travel to an away game. Most Friday classes are canceled during Homecoming week.
"It makes you start to think we're putting the emphasis on the wrong thing," said Wright, a law school professor and chairwoman of UF's faculty senate. "Many faculty believe we should be focusing more on academics."
But as the Gators take on the Ohio State Buckeyes in college football's national championship game Monday night, there's no question the sport owns the spotlight.
Officials at UF and other universities must strike a delicate balance to keep their sports programs nationally competitive without spending so excessively that they overshadow academics.
For many faculty members at Florida universities, the focus on sports is at least a minor concern. They see coaches making multimillion-dollar salaries, while most faculty don't break $100,000. They watch athletic programs raise money at a much faster rate than academics.
It also appears, though, to be an issue they quietly tolerate.
"If I had my druthers, would I rather some of the funds expended on athletics be put into academics? Sure," said Stephen Sapp, a religious studies professor and chairman of the faculty senate at the University of Miami. "But I'm also a realist. With all the other things we have to do as faculty, it isn't something to which I'm going to put a great deal of effort."
And while some faculty expressed outrage over presidents making $500,000, they are less vocal about coaches being paid twice that amount.
That's because president's salaries come from taxpayer and academic fundraising dollars, the same pool as faculty salaries. Student athletic fees, boosters, game revenues and endorsements pay the bulk of a coach's salary.
State law does not allow taxpayer money to be used for athletic programs, although athletic money can be transferred for academic purposes.
"You're not going to offer fewer sections of freshman English because of a football coach's salary," said Tom Auxter, statewide president of United Faculty of Florida, which represents faculty at colleges and universities. "It's a separate fund."
At the private University of Miami, academic money is used only to pay for student-athlete tuition, not coaches' salaries, UM President Donna Shalala said. She said she thinks most people at the university realize that coaches are paid what the market demands.
An exception is the University of Alabama, which is paying former Miami Dolphins head coach Nick Saban a reported $32 million over eight years. Shalala called that a case where a university agreed to "pay anything for a particular coach. The rest of us are recruiting in a market."
While the University of Miami has often had a reputation as being a football school, Shalala said it's also gaining a strong academic reputation, showing steady improvement in average SAT scores, graduation rates and ranking on the U.S. News & World Report's list of best colleges. The school is now ranked 54th nationally, just slightly below UF. She said these factors have quashed perceptions the university cares more about football than student performance.
"I think academics and athletics exist well together at the University of Miami," she said. "You make sure you have competitive programs, whether it's in the chemistry department or the volleyball team."
Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton is still building its sports programs, having started a football team six years ago. Many faculty members have been either supportive of or indifferent to the school's efforts. The efforts have concerned some students, since FAU must rely heavily on a student sports fee to pay for the program. FAU students pay $13.75 per credit hour per semester, the highest rate in the state. UF students pay just $1.90.
This year, FAU football moved into the NCAA's Division I-A level, the highest in collegiate competition. Program officials hope to build a stadium on the Boca Raton campus.
A successful sports program can bring name recognition to FAU and help it attract more students, said Roy Levow, a computer science professor at FAU's Davie campus who also is on the Board of Trustees.
Randy Langejans, assistant athletic director at FAU, said he has heard few concerns from faculty over the increasing stature of athletics."You're always going to have people who are curious as to the direction we're taking," he said. "But it's proven itself that athletics is a great marketing tool for a university. You can never put a price tag on the amount of exposure you're getting on TV. And believe it or not, admissions tend to either decrease or increase due to the success of some athletic programs."
At some schools, revenue from athletic programs has been used to supplement academic programs.
This year, the UF athletic department donated $1.2 million to a scholarship program for low-income students. During some tough financial years in the early 1990s, the department pumped more than $2 million into the university to maintain summer school and other academic programs.
UF President Bernard Machen said he rarely hears complaints from anyone at the university about the role of sports.
"We have a program that pays all its costs and also gives back to academics," he said in an e-mail.
Still, a recent UF survey revealed that 76 percent of faculty members believe the university puts too much emphasis on athletics. But Wright, the faculty senate chairwoman, said that's not necessarily criticism of the administration, but of a culture that puts more value on sports than in academia.
She praised Machen for a decision that she sees as a victory for academics: Despite student requests to cancel them, all UF classes will be held as scheduled Monday and Tuesday.