My hero of the month is Gordon Gee, Chancellor of Vanderbilt University. Recently he announced that Vanderbilt is eliminating the position of athletic director and replacing its traditional athletic department with a new body that is more connected to the mission of the university and more accountable to the institution’s academic leadership. As he said, Vanderbilt is making a clear statement that the “student-athlete” belongs back in the university as a step in the much-needed reform of intercollegiate athletics. To me, the most important points he made are the fact that many athletic departments exist as almost autonomous fiefdoms and serve as semi-professional “farm” systems for the professional sports franchises. I was also encouraged by an editorial by Duke University President Nannerl Keohane in which she echoed many of the same comments. Of course, the Vanderbilts and the Dukes of the world are unique, have much different constituencies and missions than most big-time flagship universities, particularly those with top-rated football programs, and their leaders can get away with such boldness. But I think it is a leadership step in the right direction. A couple of years ago, I wrote of the report of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, from which I repeat this passage: “…..the problems of big-time college sports have grown rather than diminished. The most glaring elements of the problems outlined [in the report]—academic transgressions, a financial arms race, and commercialization—are all evidence of the widening chasm between higher education’s ideals and big-time college sports.” The myth of the student-athlete in the most successful athletic programs is the “emperor with no clothes”, and I believe those courageous college administrators who want a return to the integrity of their mission deserve the support of active and influential trustees and alumni.
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