College Presidents Talk About Athletics: Where Does the Buck Stop?
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By Greg Santore

In a recent article for Forbes.com, columnist Jason Belzer and I explore the complicated relationship between university presidents and their athletic departments. As we note in the introduction, college sports are extremely lucrative today. In 2014, football revenues alone brought in more than $3.4 billion. Even at smaller institutions, the success of sports teams greatly influences overall institutional spirit and success.

Leadership of each athletic enterprise rests in the hands of one person: the president (not the athletic director, as some might believe). University presidents must have the final say in the way athletic departments are managed, and there is a need for presidents to find a balance between athletics and academics, especially since sports teams often garner much more media attention than most academic or cultural organizations on campus. Not all presidents are prepared for this – see “NCAA Novices” published earlier this year by Inside Higher Ed – and even experienced administrators are finding new and different challenges related to athletics, and finding they must communicate more effectively with their athletic directors.

Greg Santore

Greg Santore

For further insight on presidential leadership of athletics programs, Belzer and I went straight to the horses’ mouths, asking four college and university presidents – from Michigan State University, Butler University, Lindenwood University, and Amherst College – to answer questions on their relationships with athletic directors, and the way athletics influence their governing decisions. Their responses varied greatly, depending on the size of the school and the NCAA division membership of the sports program.

Following are a few of the more intriguing quotes:

  • Lou Anna Simon, president of Michigan State University (Div. I): “You have to view [academic units and intercollegiate athletics] as a tightly interconnected ecosystem with common values and with athletics as the front porch of the university.”
  • Jim Danko, president of Butler University (Div. II): “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.”
  • Michael Shonrock, president of Lindenwood University (Div. II): “Athletics is critical to the overall education mission…it heightens our visibility and creates a common language among varying constituencies around campus.”
  • Biddy Martin, president of Amherst College (Div. III): “Winning is not our first priority; we care more about the added value athletics brings to the overall student experience.”

Although all four presidents oversee their athletic departments in different ways, a common theme among their approaches is the fact that athletic programs give the collegiate community a rallying point. It is clear that athletics is not just another department on campus, but it cannot be treated as a multi-billion dollar industry either; it is still only one part of a successful university, and the buck stops with the president.

Greg Santore is a principal with Witt/Kieffer and head of the firm’s Sports Leadership practice.

Note: Belzer and Forbes recently released a list of The Most Powerful Women in Sports as well as The Most Powerful People In College Sports, for which Santore served on the voting panels. 

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