College chiefs see tighter reins on sports after Penn St.'s fall

John A. Fry, president of Drexel University, says athletics play the proper role at his school.
John A. Fry, president of Drexel University, says athletics play the proper role at his school. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer, file)
Posted: July 28, 2012

For five years in the 1990s, James F. Jones Jr. held a leadership position at Southern Methodist University, which is in Division I for athletics - the nation's most competitive class.

The experience convinced him that he never wanted to work for a school at that level again.

"The culture is so radically different from what I'm comfortable with," said Jones, now president of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., which is in Division III, with smaller schools with fewer sports teams. "I found the emphasis on athletics at all costs to be very difficult for me to accept."

With its unprecedented sanctions against Pennsylvania State University's football program, announced this week, the NCAA sent a clear, stern message that the well-being of a college community and its academic programs should never again be subordinated to the vitality of its athletic teams.

In practical terms, the NCAA's mandate puts renewed pressure on colleges to ensure that athletics never trump scholarship and that athletes receive an education while adhering to academic and social standards.

That might prove no easy task at schools like Penn State, where big-league athletics raise millions in revenue while cementing the loyalty of students and alumni.

And no one's sure how much of a quake the Penn State sanctions will cause in such an entrenched system.

College presidents interviewed locally and afar say they expect at least that college leaders will tighten the reins on their athletic departments and take a more active role in monitoring them. The investigative report on Penn State by former FBI Director Louis Freeh found that the university's top officials failed to act for years on allegations of child sex abuse against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

"This is a cautionary tale," Edward J. Ray, president of Oregon State University and chairman of the NCAA's executive committee, said in an interview Wednesday. "We hope that really, every president and every chancellor in Division I would view this as a chance to do a gut check. Have we got the balance right? ... If not, what do we need to do to get to a better place?"

At Oregon State, Ray said, he holds quarterly meetings with head coaches, the athletic director, faculty senate leaders, and others to talk about student athletes and the sports programs. He said he would consider if more needed to be done at the Division I school.

"We all need to think about whether there are changes we need to make," he said.

John A. Fry, president of Drexel University, held his school out as an example of a Division I school where athletics play the proper role. He meets regularly with athletic department officials to understand the budget, the program, and, most important, "the ethos." Drexel, however, does not have a football team.

"I inherited a balanced program," said Fry, who became president in 2010. "My athletic director is a tenured professor at Drexel. He thinks about academics first. and then he thinks about athletics in the context of academics."

Fry, however, said that while Drexel's system works well, he agrees with Jones that many aspects of the ethos in Division III should be applied to Division I. He was previously president of Franklin and Marshall College, in Division III, and during that time served as the national chairman of Division III and on the NCAA executive committee.

"The ethos of Division III was truly centered on the student athlete," he said, "the welfare and education of the student athlete."

Division III does not award sports scholarships.

Jones began working at SMU, in Dallas, in 1991 as vice provost and dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences.

It was five years after the NCAA had suspended the Texas school's football program for a year for egregious violations - the only so-called death penalty ever leveled by collegiate sports' governing body.

Even in the aftermath of such a harsh NCAA penalty, Jones said, he found the focus on athletics at SMU hard to swallow.

He recalled the case of a former student - a 30-year-old former football player - who asked if he could reenroll because he had never graduated, having failed to take the required courses. A star lineman, he had been steered instead to the easiest courses.

Jones helped him enroll in a junior college, to which he was better suited. Jones said he had not considered a job at a Division I school since he left in 1996. "I've turned down every single inquiry from a Division I school," he said. At Trinity and other Division III schools, the focus is on academics, he said.

"The athletic culture is really based on the student experience," he said, "and many of our coaches are tougher on the student athletes than the rest of us for reasons that go way beyond athletics."

He and his colleagues have been shaken by the Freeh report, which noted that Penn State leaders' failure to act allowed Sandusky to abuse other children.

"It's almost enough to make you throw up, because it's so awful," he said.

The report, he said, "is going to cause all of us in senior administrative positions and all of us who are trustees of schools to look very carefully at our cultures and to make sure the cultures are marked by transparency so that presidents feel they can go to their boards and say, 'We may have a really serious problem on our hands and you need to know as much as I know.' "

At Temple University, which just upgraded its athletic status with a move into Division I's Big East Conference, officials have formed a task force to review the Freeh report and make sure that Temple's policies and procedures measure up.

"It's important for all of us in higher education to review the Freeh report and look inward at our own policies and procedures, to see if any of them need to be strengthened," said acting president Richard M. Englert.

He said he expected that Temple's move to the conference - which will bring significant financial gain - will not change its emphasis on academics.

"We're very pleased that we are now members of the Big East," Englert said. "But always our focus, our mission, will remain on academics and preparing our students to succeed at all levels."

Henry S. Bienen, president emeritus at Northwestern University, also a Division I school, said he was shocked at the Freeh report's characterization of former president Graham B. Spanier, whom Bienen said he knew and respected. Northwestern and Penn State are both in the Big Ten Conference. Investigators accused Spanier of conspiring to cover up the abuse allegations for years.

"The first thing you learn as a president is, never cover anything up," said Bienen, who led Northwestern from 1995 to 2009 and previously worked for 28 years at Princeton University. "Whatever terrible things happen, make them public and deal with them."

Bienen said Northwestern had a good balance between athletics and academics. "I do think there is a lot that has gone wrong" in Division I athletics, he said, "but it hasn't gone wrong at every institution."


Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.

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