Tessier-Lavigne says conversations about athletic conference “landscape” are underway at Faculty Senate meeting

Nov. 8, 2022, 12:39 a.m.

Confidential conversations are underway about the changing landscape of athletic conferences, the University president said at Thursday’s Faculty Senate meeting.

Responding to a faculty senator’s question about conference realignment, University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne discussed how student athletes at UCLA and USC, which will both join the Big 10 Conference in 2024, would be affected by “much more travel.” He then said that these considerations were “very concerning to us as well as we look at this landscape.”

Tessier-Lavigne confirmed that conversations about media rights are already ongoing within the Pac-12, after a recent lawsuit filed against the NCAA opened the possibility of student athletes monetizing their own brand.

“There is a lot that’s happening behind closed doors right now,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “I am not at liberty to divulge those except to say that the 10 universities are focused on working with our commissioner to strike a deal that would be good for the conference, but more importantly good for our student athletes.”

At the same meeting, civil and environmental engineering professor Jeff Koseff, the faculty athletics representative, and Bernard Muir, athletics director, discussed the state of the University’s athletics program, including some of the significant challenges and changes facing collegiate athletics nationwide.

Koseff said his role includes making sure athletes are able to participate fully in both their academic and athletic pursuits while at Stanford. He also works on NCAA compliance so that the athletes are always able to compete. 

“It’s a very big operation,” Koseff said. He said Stanford has 36 sports for scholarship, the second highest in the country after Ohio State, which has 37. Additionally, Stanford has 817 athletes, according to Koseff — which represents around 10% of the undergraduate population. 

Stanford is a national leader in intercollegiate athletics, Koseff said: “We have won more national championships and our graduation rates are the highest in the country. Our athletes graduate, they go out and they make an impact in society.”

Koseff added, “Excellence in athletics is part and parcel of what defines Stanford. It’s part of our culture and our fabric.”

However, the financial overview revealed that the athletics department is running a financial loss. “The income and expenses do not match,” Koseff said. “It’s something that is actively being worked on.”

Koseff pointed out that $40 million is derived from the Pac-12 through media rights and March Madness. This large sum “should be what drives a lot of decision-making going forward,” Koseff said. 

In terms of the national landscape, there are shifting allegiances. USC and UCLA left the Pac-12 to join the Big 10. The Pac-12 and the Big 10 are NCAA Division I athletic conferences. 

Since this move, conference realignment has been a topic of consideration among the Stanford administration, according to Koseff. Schools in the Big 10 make significantly more from media rights, which could result in “an extra $50 million,” Koseff said.

“It has enormous consequences for our student athletes so it is not an issue that can be taken lightly,” Koseff said.

Tessier-Levigne added that Stanford authorized its commissioner to open media rights negotiations. 

He then explained Stanford’s parameters in making a conference change decision: “From a Stanford point of view, what we want is to make sure that we can continue to provide an exceptional academic and athletic experience to our extraordinary student athletes and also to be part of a competitive conference that is stable and also financially viable.” 

He added, “What time frame exactly is unclear but the negotiations are ongoing.”

Name, Image and Likeness

Until a recent lawsuit filed against the NCAA, student athletes were not permitted to monetize their own brand. The University is now looking for the best strategy to navigate this change in policy. 

Stanford has formed a committee to examine creating a “uniquely Stanford approach” to this challenge, Koseff said. 

Currently, there are 103 student athletes with at least one deal, with a total of 278 deals, according to Koseff. Furthermore, the University is acutely aware of how other federal policy changes will impact the athletics program.

Tessier-Levigne praised the athletics program, labeling it “one of the jewels in the crown of Stanford.”

“We are very proud of the student athlete model that we have at Stanford that functions at the highest level where we pair academic excellence with excellence on the playing field,” he said. “My favorite statistic is that at both the Rio and Tokyo Olympics, Stanford students and alumni won more medals than did my home country of Canada.”

Political science professor Julie Goldstein also shared concerns about the athletic programs’ financial losses.

“There are many people on campus who have much more ambivalent feelings about athletics,” Goldstein said. “But I want to say that for most of us, if in fact there is going to be a structural deficit and at some point we are going to be asked to make a tradeoff between doing what I think most of us think is the essential thing this university is supposed to do, which is education, and instead to support 36 [athletics] programs, 34 of which make no money, I think at the minimum we need to have a campus conversation.”

Goldstein added that “you cannot start pulling general funds in the absence of that conversation.”

Tessier-Levigne responded by saying that Provost Persis Drell is tackling the budget deficit and is working with the athletics program to ensure that, through a combination of revenue and philanthropy, Stanford athletics programs are self-sustaining. 

Economics professor Michael Boskin added that he has heard dozens of times during his decades of teaching that students choose to go to Stanford over other schools because they want to be surrounded by excellence in many forms, including athletics. 

Muir closed the meeting by sharing how vibrant the athletics program is and how it attracts athletes from all over the world. “We have a great international presence which speaks well to our program,” Muir said. “We are kind of like an Olympic village.”

A previous version of this article stated that Marc Tessier-Lavigne confirmed conversations about conference realignment were underway. The Daily regrets this error.

Jonathan is a writer for The Daily. Contact them at news ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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