The time for governing board members to view their engagement in college and university athletics as primarily that of fans is over; today, boards and trustees must be fiduciaries first, fans second. As recent crises at Rutgers University and other institutions make clear, no one can afford to ignore programs that receive such prominent public attention. The risks associated with limited oversight are too great to be ignored.
So, in light of yet another instance of less-than-effective oversight, I offer these thoughts. To the extent that Rutgers offers a lesson, it is about the need for institutional leadership to provide a higher level of attention to athletics programs, most especially those programs that are or have moved more intentionally to greater national prominence. While mostly playing out at Division I institutions, these problems concerning the lack of oversight are useful reminders across all athletic divisions. Public issues involving athletics intensify the spotlight on the decision-making process, which increasingly requires greater awareness, transparency and engagement on the part of institutional governing boards. Policy decisions for intercollegiate sports, like other areas of governance oversight, must receive the appropriate degree of attention from boards and presidents. The governing board, as a fiduciary body, must conduct due diligence and assess risks where athletics is concerned, much as they do in other areas of their responsibility.
The increasingly prominent issue of athletics conference affiliation, especially, has been in the news of late. The question of whether an institution should accept an invitation to change conferences impacts the academic welfare of students, has short- and long-term financial implications for the college or university, and can affect alumni loyalties. Too often, these decisions are made with only limited participation by institutional governing boards. Boards must consider their level of engagement and good processes for working with their administrators to make the best decisions. In a meeting last week with the Division I Conference Commissioners Association (CCA), I came away impressed by these colleagues' recognition that the processes of governing college sports and conference alignment need attention.
I draw your attention to the 2012 AGB report, "Trust, Accountability, and Integrity. Board Responsibilities for Intercollegiate Athletics," and its three recommendations concerning the board's role athletics.
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. Policies that define the administration of athletics programs should be consistent with those for other academic and administrative units of the institution or system.
3. The board must educate itself about is policy role and oversight of intercollegiate athletics.
This report, which is available at AGB's Web site (www.agb.org) provides the results of a 2012 study on the engagement of governing boards in the oversight of intercollegiate athletics. It is must-reading for any board engaging with these issues.