Sunday, October 14, 2012

Too Little but Maybe Not Too Late: Association of Governing Board's Report on Board Responsibilities for Intercollegiate Athletics

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) "is the only national association that serves the interests and needs of academic governing boards, boards of institutionally related foundations, and campus CEOs and other senior-level campus administrators on issues related to higher education governance and leadership. Its mission is to strengthen, protect, and advocate on behalf of citizen trusteeship that supports and advances higher education." About AGB.

(Pix from AGB website)

The following is a link to a new report from the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) on board responsibilities for intercollegiate athletics released yesterday by the Knight Commission: Trust, Accountability and Integrity: Board Responsibilities for Intercollegiate Athletics (2012) ("AGB Report". It was put together by a group representing university presidents and board of trustees members.  It included no other constituencies and so remains very much an insider's project for insiders.  That alone should give pause.  To some extent this Report can be understood as a step forward.  However, for the most part it presents the sort of timid and overgeneralized approach that both creates  the appearance of forward movement and enough ambiguity to protect boards in their desire to change nothing but appear to speak to changing everything. If this is the best these grandees can do, then the locus of evolution of both the university and of college sports is much more likely to originate from others--principally the state, the media and critical consumer and user constituencies. That the university would willingness ceded control of its fate to others is sad, indeed. 

The object of the AGB Report is clear: "As spending on athletics by colleges and universities continues to rise, accompanied by mounting public ire about ethical and moral misconduct, it is critically important that governing boards monitor and oversee the impact of athletics on the academic missions of the institutions for which they have fiduciary responsibility." AGB Report, p. 2. The AGB Report focuses on three fairly generic recommendations:
1. The governing board is ultimately accountable for athletics policy and oversight and should fulfill this fiduciary responsibility.
2.The board should act decisively to uphold the integrity of the athletics program and its alignment with the academic mission of the institution.
3. The board must educate itself about its policy role and oversight of intercollegiate athletics.
(AGB Report, p. 3).
Yet even these recommendations came with a caveat: "We are not urging boards to move into areas of management prerogative" (Ibid).  

The AGB Report looks to the existence of memorialized board policies on athletics (again expressed as a generalized sort of indication of interest and a warning of a willingness to intervene under conditions of stress, whatever that means).  More importantly it looks ot the division of authority between board and chief executive officer--something at the heart of the University of Virginia battles of the summer of 2012. But it fails to do little more than identify this issue, preferring instead to linger on issues of presidential assessment (the usefulness of this passive and post facto monitoring remains to be seen) and the construction (again) of formal statements.  Nowhere is there an emphasis on the development of cultures of governance appropriate to the conduct of universities that might overcome the hierarchical and somewhat stiffly derivative behavior modes increasingly inherited from the corporate for profit world. The AGB Reportt is fond of what appears to be a gold standard of economic self sufficiency of athletic programs.  But the perversity of this standard is nowhere discussed--instead the idea seems to be that athletics departments that are economically autonomous might then be behaviorally autonomous as well.  No need to connect athletics and the educational function of the university as long as they two can be operated as independent subsidiaries within a university "conglomerate" enterprise. Mercifully, there is a nod to student well being, but again the proxies for the monitoring of well being at the board level are not adequately explored and might appear to serve as a cover (against liability) rather than as a mechanism for effective surveillance--for the sort of accountability and control at the level of policy appropriate for a board. Lastly, the AGB's Report focus on compensation of coaches is ironic--its focus conforms a strong adherence both to the markets model of running athletics departments (and thus its lack of commitment to effective connections between athletics and the academic mission of the university) and the usual concerns of managers about depressing labor markjets for high priced employees (except, of course, university presidents).  

Lastly, one can fault the AGB Report for its severely narrow focus. That focus was completely grounded in the perspectives and limited views of university governance elites--board chairs and presidents.  It is meant to serve as an insider's guide to operations, and is produced to provide something of a "shock and awe" response from the lower orders who are meant ot receive thsi wisdom from on high as the collective wisdom of those who know better from their quite distinct perches on the hierarchies of university governance.  This is a great strength of the AGB Report but also its strongest weakness.  The Report suffers from a self referential and narrow perspective grounded in the cultural imperatives of a small class of university stakeholders.  It does little to reach effectively down to the operational realities of operations of athletics within a university environment, nor does it seek strong engagement with operational realities as they exist today or as they might change tomorrow.  Instead, the document provides a more narrowly tailored  reverie on the formal requirements of boards to meet cultural expectations and legal obligations.  By following these suggestions, boards will be let alone--by the press, by media and internal and external stakeholders.  One can only hope that this aristocratic exercise is broadened to be come more useful and pro-active.  One expects nothing of the sort.  Again, our leaders have produced something that is better suited for media relations than for effective and institution enhancing analysis.  

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