Inside the University: FAQ

From reading the site over the past year, I've come to learn that TN loves itself some statistics. This post has no bar graphs, but it does try to "quantify" some of the issues we've been talking about in our discussions of conference realignment.

I've tried to add as much quantitative data as I can, but much of what I've done is: 1) summarize the findings of serious scholars who have done quantitative research on the relationship between athletics and academics, and who have published their work in peer-reviewed journals and university presses; 2) synthesize what I know as a working academic with published accounts from reliable media sources; 3) offer some conjecture about what these findings might mean to FSU's situation in this current moment.

I also wanted to clarify some terrible misinformation I've been reading on these boards about the financial, institutional, and social structure of the university system. I do not claim that any of the following statements are definitive, but I do hope that this information will help clarify some of the issues and provoke further discussion.

One final note -- I recognize that, because I reference scholarly articles in the links, that some people may not be able to access them. I tried to find as many reputable, free sources as I could.

Structure of the University

Q: What is the role of FSU's University President?

A: According to FSU's website, the University President serves "as the principal liaison and official contact between the Board [of Trustees] and the faculty, staff and students of the university." He/she is also the university's primary fundraiser. As a university administrator, he/she is tasked with improving, refining, and expanding the university's mission.

Q: Do the faculty elect the president?

A: No. Much like football coaches, schools often hire consultant firms to conduct "search committees" that narrow prospective candidates which are then selected by the Board of Trustees. President Barron is not beholden unto the faculty, although as their leader he is charged with representing their interests and the interests of the university.

Q: Who are the Board of Trustees (BoT)?

A: Of the 13 current members, 11 are "citizen members," and only the faculty senate representative is a practicing academic. Six are appointed by the governor, and five are appointed by the board of governors. According to FSU's website, the majority of the BoT are prominent business leaders and lawyers. At least five members are self-identified Seminole Boosters, most of whom served on that body's executive board (Burr, Duda, Haggard, Hillis, Camps).

Q: What is FSU's current budget situation?

A: The state's contribution to the university system has dropped around 27 percent during this recession. FSU is currently facing a $65 million cut under the state's new budget proposal.

Q: How much does Florida State University care about athletics?

A: It's worth noting that FSU's strategic plan - which is its essential five year "mission statement" -- mentions athletics exactly one time, and only in a footnote. If we measure a university's "care" for a program through the dollars it spends, FSU' cares about athletics 4.68 - which is the athletic department's percentage of the operating budget. This means that 95.23% of FSU does not "care" about athletics, or at least functions independently of it. However, if we measure "care" through media ink and jibba-jabba, that number is exponentially higher.

Athletics, Funding, and the University

Q: How much financial support does FSU's athletic department produce for its academic programs?

A: Zero dollars. All money earned by FSU's athletic department exclusively goes toward funding its athletic programs, including scholarships for its athletes. Profits are saved to insure against future losses.

Q: How much profit does FSU's athletic program generate for itself every year?

A: In 2010-2011, FSU "lost" $16 million. The athletic department was subsidized by a combination of booster donations and student fees. See onebarrelrum's excellent post, "FSU Athletics Budget and the USA Today Data - We Maxing out Credit Cards?" for more information on this issue.

Q: How many schools do not run deficits in their athletic departments?

A: According to the USA Today data, only 22 out of 227 public schools generate enough money to pay for athletics. That means 205 schools spent more money than they earned.

Q: If only 22 athletic departments fund themselves, why do we continue to have them?

A: There are a number of serious theories for why athletics justify their expense: 1) Athletic contests are a long-standing traditions and are culturally entrenched in the university's structure, going back to rowing competitions between what we now call "Ivy League" schools in the 1850s; 2) They positively contribute to the fostering of community and "campus atmosphere" for current students, similar to the Greek system and other student life activities; 3) They serve as the visible "front porch" of the university, the attractiveness of which promotes alumni fundraising; 4) They provide publicity for the university, which in turn garners more applications, more selectivity, and ultimately more high-achieving students.

Q: Are any of those four reasons true?

A: Reason one certainly true, and the question of whether football culture has had a "positive" effect on the mission of the university is highly contested, but the real question is whether or not athletics justifies the $16 million that FSU "lost" last year. Numerous studies have examined the effect of big-time college athletics on university operations, such as the so-called "Flutie Effect," and most have determined that they provide little or no "net" fundraising or prestige gains. In his article "Athletics Success and Institutional Rankings," Brian Fisher finds "very little connection between year-to-year changes in winning and the ranking USNWR assigns an institution the following year" (50).

Q: Is there a correlation between athletic success and alumni fundraising, enrollments, etc?

A: No. Dr. Robert Frank concludes that even if success in athletics does generate the indirect benefits in alumni giving, the effects are almost surely very small. He cites studies that track application numbers following successful NCAA runs, and finds that there is only a marginal increase in the applicants' overall SAT scores (1.7% increase). I encourage all interested parties to read the article for more in-depth analysis. In effect, the significance of increased applications and alumni giving is grossly overstated.

Prestige and Conference Affiliation

Q: Why do universities care about prestige?

A: This is difficult to answer succinctly and objectively, but there is a strong correlation between academic reputation/rankings and research dollars and student achievement. You see the name Harvard, you think "success." You hear the name MIT, you think "smart kid." In aggregate, perception is reality. As in the Coach's Poll, reputation gets you farther than perhaps it should.

Q: Every time FSU plays against Duke in football, does the value of my degree increase by the number of touchdowns scored?

A: No. Academic competition between universities does not directly correlate to academic performance. No one on planet Earth believes this is true.

Q: What effect does athletic affiliation have to do with FSU's academic prestige?

A: While there is no direct 1-to-1 correspondence between conference affiliation and academic prestige, universities often athletically associate themselves with "peer institutions" that match their profiles. Members of the Ivy League do not offer merit (e.g. athletic) scholarships, and so compete against one another in sports to ensure a degree of parity. The NCAA separates teams into Divisions based on spending, scholarship limits, etc. Like membership in a country club, membership in an athletic conference has long been considered a tacit nod/agreement among institutions that they are peers.

Q: What is a "peer institution?"

A: A peer institution is another school that a university identifies with. Public universities spend a great deal of time and effort in identifying peer institutions for their strategic plans. The peer institution is either already similar to the university in question, or it acts as a measuring stick for where that university wants to be. Universities select peer institutions based on geographic location, enrollment, student achievement, student body demographics, graduation rates, program offerings, funding structures, etc.

Q: Who are FSU's peer institutions?
A: Of FSU's 15 self-identified peer institutions, eight are current ACC members (Clemson, Duke, Georgia Tech, NC State, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wake Forest), four are Big-10 members (Indiana, Michigan State, Northwestern, and Michigan), one is Pac-12 member (Washington), one is a SEC member (Florida), and one is a Big-XII member (Texas).

Q: Is being identified as a peer institution an acknowledgment of academic merit?

A: More so for the identified than the identifier. For example, although FSU lists UNC among its peer institutions, UNC lists such schools as Berkeley, Michigan, Chicago, Emory, Johns Hopkins, and Vanderbilt. According to UNC, only Duke and Virginia qualify as ACC "peers."

Q: Just who does UNC's president think he is, comparing his state school to Johns Hopkins?

A: Dunno.

Q: What is the current academic relationship between FSU and the ACC members.

A: As it's been noted, FSU is institutionally involved in the ACCIAC, which is a pale imitation of the Big-10's excellent CIC program. In its current incarnation, the ACCIAC gives its members perks, but serves almost no serious academic (e.g. research) function. Any prestige advantage that FSU gains from its affiliation with the ACC is derived from the acknowledgement by peers, and its inclusion under the "ACC brand."

Q: What is the cost/benefit analysis between academic prestige and athletic funding? How much is prestige worth?

A: Schools compete for academic prestige in the same way they compete for athletic championships. Indeed, it is because schools do not acknowledge an "academic champion" that academic competition is so amorphous and difficult to quantify, making every perceived advantage seem perhaps more important than it actually is. There is no magic number, but it often takes significant amount of money for most schools to relinquish any amount of academic prestige. Legacy, celebrity, and athletic admissions are examples of these types of exchanges.


Q: What do university professors think about athletics?

A: My sense is that they feel like media-sports are a distraction, at best. Athletic departments make no money for the university, they attract no significant alumni donations, and contribute to the erosion of academic standards. Despite their status as window dressing, people who care passionately about sports are often misinformed about the supposed centrality of athletics in the university's overall mission, funding structure, effects, etc. At worse, professors see athletic departments-and the corresponding "booster culture" that sometimes invades the highest levels of university administration-as a challenge to the fundamental mission of the university.

Q: Why would the university professors care about FSU leaving the ACC for the Big-XII at all?

A: There are a few reasons: 1) Given the results of the academic studies listed above, some professors question the added value of athletics to a university's culture, and are therefore suspicious of any additional spending on FSU's part to either raise student athletic fees to cover costs, or break our contractual agreement with the ACC; 2) They resent the fact that realignment has become such an important issue with alumni, given that many of FSU's academic programs have been gutted by significant budget cuts without a corresponding outcry from the media and the BoT; 3) They may use FSU's athletic spending as leverage for their own salary/budgetary negotiations.

Q: Do the university professors care which conference FSU belongs to at all?

A: Not really. University professors overwhelmingly care about their department budgets and professional working relationships. Insofar as the budget is solvent and not a drain on university resources, conference membership (and athletics in general) only marginally affects academic prestige and performance. It is the professor's interest that the athletic department does not run deeper deficits, as national trends suggest that schools will appropriate university funds to overcome athletic budget shortfalls. While it's true that FSU receives a prestige-boost from being acknowledged by "peer institutions" within conference affiliations, it is not a significant issue.

Q: But the budget is not solvent. What does that mean for the university professors?

A: The professors would prefer that the athletic department be funded so that it does not distract FSU's administrators or alumni from the issue of state budget appropriations, which is a true threat to their intellectual pursuits and livelihoods. Their main focus at the moment is combating the divestment of public education in the state of Florida.

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