Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ohio State's Terrible Mistake

When the New York Times reported that Ohio State had just signed a new football coach, paying him $4 million yearly plus bonuses, putting a private jet at his disposal, throwing in a country club membership and the other accouterments of an opulent (many would say decadent) lifestyle – a seven-year package valued at nearly $40 million – the venom in the reader responses practically dripped off my computer screen:

” The nation's false values could not be more graphically displayed by this action…”

“What a terrible waste of money.”

“This is unacceptable and perverted.”

“I am appalled at this contract. I hear from my daughter that [Ohio State] academic programs go without funding and needed supplies.”

And on and on and on…..

The Times readers have it right. By brazenly capitulating to the grotesque arms race in college sports, Ohio State has tossed its academic values into the trash bin. It has betrayed its faculty and cheapened the degree of its three hundred thousand alumni. Forget education. Forget research. Forget public service. At Ohio State the name of the game is football.

Am I taking this personally? You bet I am, and here’s why. I was a professor and administrator at Ohio State for twenty-six years. As a department chair and dean I worked my butt off trying to raise academic standards, recruiting talented faculty, raising money to strengthen programs, writing research proposals, and singing the praises of my department and college to anyone who would listen. For twenty-six years I sat through endless numbers of meetings, wrote thousands of memos, agonized over budgets, did my best to make smart decisions – and I did all this because I wanted to do my part to make the university – my university – better. My son was born in the Ohio State hospitals, my wife and ex-wife are Ohio State alums. Our family bleeds scarlet and gray.

So how do I feel about Ohio State’s decision? I feel like the university has turned its back on what I spent most of my career trying to accomplish.

Here’s how Ohio State President Gordon Gee rationalized this move: “I’m about having the best physics faculty, the best medical school faculty and the best football coach.”

Well, Gordon, you’re my friend and former colleague, and I don’t want to get personal, but you know and I know that’s pure baloney. That spin may play in some quarters, but it sure doesn’t with your thousands of current and former faculty members. Where we expected you to stand up for the academic heart of the institution, you cheapened it. Instead of using this opportunity to restore balance, you embraced the madness. Instead of acting courageously, you capitulated to the corrupt sports materialism in college athletics that is anathema to the university’s core academic values.

Sure, you’ll find thousands, maybe millions, of Ohioans who applaud your decision. For them it’s all about winning games. But for me, and for the young Ohio State economics professor laboring over a journal article, or the senior chemistry professor fighting to renew an NSF grant, or the debt-burdened medical student, or the tens of thousands of Ohio families struggling to put their kid through Ohio State – to us, this issue isn’t about football. It’s about the priorities of the institution. It’s about what Ohio State University really stands for. And now we know.

Symbolism matters in academia. In some ways, it’s more important than anything else, and understanding that is what we expect from our academic leaders. Ohio State has had more than its share of sports scandals, and these are deeply embarrassing to many Buckeyes, including me. At a time when there is public outrage about the culture of impunity in major collegiate programs, at a time when Americans are fed up with the excesses, the greed, the win-at-all-cost mentality, the hype and the hypocrisy of college sports, it’s high time for college presidents to speak out.

Now it’s time for them to say “that’s enough” and to reject the corrosive influence of out-of-control sports on American higher education. Now it’s time to rein in the excesses and restore some sanity to campuses. To stand up and defend the academic heart of the university. To put one’s money where one’s mouth is. At Ohio State, that’s a lesson yet to be learned and that fact makes me sick at heart.


  1. I am a retired University of Alabama professor with 30+ years of service as a business professor and Associate Dean for Research and Technology, Director of the Center for Business and Economic Research, and past president of the national Association for University and Business Research. I have fought budget battles at the department, college, university, and state level. I have lamented misplaced priorities and the dilution of academic standards. And, I have been told countless times that as a public institution we must "support the mission prescribed by the public."

    What is the answer? You do both. You refuse to abandon academic standards in favor of athletic prowess. The University of Texas is a good example of this. Bob Witt has put The University of Alabama on the same road. See and and It's not easy but it can be done.

    You're right of course. We must never compromise our academic standards and aspiration.

  2. James H. Finkelstein, Ph.D.December 11, 2011 at 1:29 PM

    Your blog couldn't be more on target. What is happening to Ohio State is sad beyond belief. I'm almost ashamed to admit that I have my masters and Ph.D. from there. Even more troubling is my mother's recent substantial bequest to Ohio State. At least she had the presence of mind to add restrictive language that sets up an endowed scholarship, none of which can ever be used to support athletics. I know if she had lived a few more months to see the compensation package for the new coach she would have changed her will and left the moneys to other organizations.

    Something has to change in our universities if they are to continue to survive. My own recent research over the past decade has been on executive compensation in higher education with a special focus on presidents who serve on corporate boards. Our study should come out this Spring. I'm certain the results won't surprise you.

    Our core mission and values are being corrupted by the corporatization of our institutions. The most recent example is the search for a new president at my institution, George Mason. The search was conducted in secret despite our being a public university. Whoever is named in the days ahead will not have made a presentation to faculty--or to the best of my knowledge even been on campus, except perhaps in disguise. This rarely works out well either at universities such as the University of New Mexico or in the corporate sector such as HP. If university presidents are hired in secret, can provosts and deans be far behind?

    I hope you and other leaders will continue to speak out. Faculty need to take back our universities--not just for the sake of our institutions but for society and the principle of democracy.