Duke prof weighs tradeoffs between academics, athletics at universities

Jan. 28, 2011, 3:01 a.m.

Duke professor Charles Clotfelter spoke Thursday at the School of Education about the role of big athletics at American universities. During the talk, presented by the Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA), Clotfelter raised fundamental questions about higher education and the role of athletics at institutions like Stanford.

Duke prof weighs tradeoffs between academics, athletics at universities
In his Thursday afternoon presentation, Duke professor Charles Clotfelter claimed that many faculty and administrators neglect the significant impacts of athletics on their respective institutions. (IAN GARCIA-DOTY/The Stanford Daily)

“What are the aims of the great institutions we revere?” asked Clotfelter, an economics, public policy and law professor.

Despite routinely being ignored by scholars as a subject of inquiry, “sports is a big deal,” Clotfelter said. “The universities are being bashful about their big-time sports.”

In his research, Clotfelter cited that of 52 schools with top athletics programs and mission statements, only 10 percent mention athletics in their statements.

The question, Clotfelter said, is whether universities should add entertainment to their official goals of research, teaching and service.

“These scholars are acting like they’re in a parallel universe,” he said of faculty who ignore the profound effects, negative and positive, of their schools’ athletic traditions.

Clotfelter listed four factors often touted in favor of intercollegiate athletics: life lessons for student athletes, attention to universities resulting in admissions and donations, revenue and increased sense of community.

Citing revenue as a reason for universities to maintain big athletics programs is a losing argument, he said, as “most of those programs lose money.”

Many argue big-time college athletics are too commercial, causing schools to abandon academic priorities, compromising academic standards and exploiting players.

Though NCAA athletes are unpaid, a draft-worthy football player may be worth as much as $500,000 per season, while a draft-worthy basketball player may be worth more than $1 million, Clotfelter said. Stanford’s annual athletics budget in 2009 was $74.7 million, according to Clotfelter.

“Who gets more Google hits—your football coach or your University president?” he asked.

Salaries for football coaches at American universities increased by a factor 7.5 between 1986 and 2010, while professor compensation increased by 32 percent, said Clotfelter.

“Why in the world are universities spending all this money?” he asked. “Why would they be doing something stupid?”

Contributions provide the top source of funding for “major powers” with successful teams, but lesser-ranked schools must rely on subsidies to support their programs.

Despite high costs, “it’s the exceptional university that gets out of the business,” Clotfelter said.

He pointed to influential booster coalitions, such as the Buck/Cardinal Club at Stanford, and University trustees who “want to have a competitive team.”

Clotfelter did highlight two “unheralded benefits” of collegiate athletics. The consumer surplus associated with college sports leads to happiness and pride within the community, he argued, calling it “an important spillover effect.”

He also discussed the positive example teams provide of interracial groups succeeding, though he acknowledged the example is an imperfect one.

Clotfelter made his appeal to universities: “Be candid about what it is that you do and what it is that you value.”

Clotfelter urged Congress to “re-examine the tax deductibility of donations” to college athletics. Currently 20 percent of donations are deductible, but Clotfelter advocated that the number be diminished to zero.

Throughout the talk, Clotfelter used Stanford’s football program as an example of big-time athletics at a university with a primarily academic mission.

The e-mail Provost John Etchemendy Ph.D. ‘82 sent encouraging faculty to be flexible with students who missed classes for the Orange Bowl in January, he said, was an “indication of the true importance of big-time sports.”

On Clotfelter’s point that universities are forced to make academic concessions to have successful athletics, Earl Koberlein, senior associate athletic director who attended the event, said, “I beg to differ on that. We haven’t lowered our academic standards.”

Koberlein reflected on Stanford’s victory at the Orange Bowl, saying that he expects a “bump in donations because of how the Orange Bowl played out.”

And about quarterback Andrew Luck’s decision to stay at Stanford to complete his degree in architectural design, Koberlein said, “You can’t buy that publicity.”

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