As a member of the official party representing the University of Michigan at the 2007 Rose Bowl, Ross School of Business Prof. Thomas Kinnear spent the game mingling with California-based alumni, shaking hands and making introductions.
He’d traveled to the Rose Bowl as a member of the University’s Advisory Board on Intercollegiate Athletics, a group comprised of faculty, alumni, student-athletes and administrators who together advise University Athletic Director Bill Martin on major financial and policy decisions involving Michigan athletics.
As a faculty member on the ABIA, Kinnear also served on the board’s Committee on Academic Performance (APC). The committee, made up of all the faculty members on the ABIA and one University administrator, reviews the academic performances of student-athletes whose grade point average drops below the University’s required 2.0 and decides whether they are eligible to practice and compete in games.
Though APC members make decisions in student-athlete eligibility cases, an internal University audit obtained by The Michigan Daily found that the Athletic Department paid for seven of the 10 committee members to attend the 2007 Rose Bowl. The audit suggested that it “may appear to be a conflict of interest” for the Athletic Department to offer free airfare, hotel accommodations, tickets and meals to the faculty members charged with overseeing the eligibility of the University’s student-athletes.
According to the July 2007 audit, the Athletic Department offers to pay travel expenses for APC members attending Michigan bowl games. For the 2007 Rose Bowl, the seven APC members attended the game as “guests of the Athletic Department,” the audit said.
Pharmacology Prof. Charles Smith, who chaired the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs from May 2006 to April 2008, said SACUA’s members all agreed that the audit’s findings “looked bad” when the audit came out.
“Everybody agreed on SACUA when were given the audit by the provost that it appeared as if there were a conflict having (APC) members having their ways paid to the bowl games,” he said.
Despite the audit’s findings, the University has chosen not to change the practice. University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said University Provost Teresa Sullivan “has taken the audit’s findings under advisement,” but doesn’t intend to change any policies.
Athletic Department spokesman Bruce Madej said the money used to pay for APC members’s expenses comes from funds the Athletic Department receives for appearing in bowl games.
“When you go to your bowl, you get a budget for the amount of money you can spend for that bowl,” he said, adding that the budget’s amount depends on the bowl game.
Madej said the practice of paying for APC members’s bowl game expenses is long-standing.
“I’ve been here 30 years,” he said, “and it’s been ongoing for 30 years.”
Kinnear, who also serves as the executive director of the Samuel Zell and Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, said he never thought about who paid for his Rose Bowl trip. He later insisted that even if the Athletic Department had paid for APC members’ trips to past bowl games, the practice never influenced the committee’s decisions in his eyes.
“Everybody on that committee is a dignified faculty member with very high integrity,” he said. “Such issues did not influence people on that committee in any way, shape or form.”
REVISITING THE DEBATE
Though the audit was released in July 2007, no actions have been taken as a result of its findings other than a unanimous motion by SACUA at its July 30, 2007 meeting saying the findings should be reviewed.
At the Oct. 27, 2008 meeting of the Senate Assembly, the University faculty’s governing body, Physics Prof. Keith Riles renewed talk on the potential for conflict of interest with the Athletic Department’s practice.
Near the meeting’s conclusion, Riles asked University President Mary Sue Coleman why there had not been an investigation into the practice after the audit’s release in 2007, even after SACUA unanimously supported a review.
In response, Coleman said she was unsure on whether any actions were being taken regarding the audit’s findings, but added that she had no concerns about the practice. She suggested Riles discuss the issue with Sullivan, who oversees all academic issues at the University.
Riles said in an interview that he brought up the audit because there has yet to be any action by the University administration a year after its release.
“I thought it was about the right time to bring it up,” he said. “The practice of funding bowl game vacations for faculty who are supposed to give unvarnished advice on athletics issues — the potential for conflict of interest issues seems strong.”
At the Senate Assembly meeting, Coleman also told Riles that she thought the practice of athletic departments paying for faculty members to attend bowl games was prevalent at other universities.
“It is my understanding that this is a widespread practice across Division I institutions and within the Big Ten,” she said.
Several other athletic departments at Big Ten universities use bowl game funds to pay some or all of the expenses for faculty members serving on athletic advisory boards to attend bowl games.
At the University of Iowa, bowl game proceeds are used to pay the travel expenses for the chair of the Presidential Committee on Athletics, an athletics advisory board that reports to the university president, according to Mark Abbott, an associate athletic director at the University of Iowa. The chair of the PCA is always a faculty member selected by the university president, according to the committee’s charter.
In 2008, the athletic department at the University of Illinois purchased game tickets to the Rose Bowl game for two faculty representatives and the faculty chair of the Athletic Board, UI’s faculty athletics advisory board, according to Kent Brown, assistant athletics director at Illinois.
In his book “Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education,” Murray Sperber, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, notes that the University of Wisconsin Athletic Department paid for faculty members on the Faculty Board of Control of Intercollegiate Athletics to attend the 1999 Rose Bowl game.
Sperber said the practice of athletic departments paying for faculty members on athletics advisory boards to attend bowl games is pervasive.
“It occurs at almost every big-time athletic (department) that I know of and thus is not local corruption but systemic corruption, and part of the reason why real reform cannot come to big-time college sports,” he said. “The foxes are guarding the henhouse.”
Several other Big Ten schools did not respond to requests for information about bowl game expense practices for their respective faculty advisory boards. An NCAA spokeswoman also declined to comment on the bowl game expense practices at Big Ten universities.
At the end of the Oct. 27 Senate Assembly meeting, Riles presented a resolution before the assembly to urging Coleman to stop the bowl game expenses practice. The Senate Assembly will vote on the resolution at its Nov. 10 meeting.
WHO’S FOOTING THE BILL?
As part of his membership on the APC, Smith attended the 2007 Rose Bowl and the 2008 Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Florida.
When asked about the Athletic Department paying for the trips, Smith said he thought the University administration, not the Athletic Department, had footed the bill.
“It was my impression that the president’s office was paying for the trips,” Smith said. “The invitation did not come from the Athletic Department. The most recent invitation came from (vice president and secretary of the University) Sally Churchill. So I don’t really know who pays for the trip.”
Kinnear also said his Rose Bowl invitation came from the Office of the President.
Smith said if he had known that there was a potential conflict of interest in going to the two bowl games, he simply would not have attended. But he said the APC’s members were never influenced by the bowl game perks.
“That trip to the bowl game had no influence at all on the decision making process of the (APC),” he said. “I was impressed by the clean, clear, transparent way in which they conducted their business.”
Not all faculty members who served on the committee saw the bowl game perks as potential problem.
Social Work Prof. Larry Root, who served on the APC during the 2006-2007 academic year, said he viewed the free bowl game trips as merely an added benefit for serving on the committee.
“The fact is, if you’re on this committee, there’s this perk associated with it, and that’s kind of neat,” he said. “And it’s always been that.”
WEIGHING THE POTENTIAL FOR CONFLICT
School of Education Prof. Percy Bates, who has served on the APC and is the main faculty representative to the Athletic Department, said the committee only reviews a few student-athletes each year. That, he said, undercuts the argument that the Athletic Department paying APC members’ bowl game expenses presents a potential conflict of interest.
“If we were responsible for all 85 (scholarship) football players and determining their eligibility, I would say, ‘I don’t know about this,’ ” he said. “I just don’t see, as long as I’ve watched people do it, how critical it becomes at this juncture that we ought to change this procedure because of this issue.”
Exact records on how many student-athletes go before the committee and the past decisions made by the APC are difficult to obtain because, as Bates explained, the APC does not keep minutes at its meetings. The committee cannot release its decisions including the names of individual student-athletes because it would violate student privacy laws.
A review of the minutes for the larger ABIA from January 2006 to January 2008, during which time the advisory board met 17 times, shows that the APC on five separate occasions reported to the board specifically concerning student-athletes.
The minutes for each of these five meetings show that no student-athletes that went before the APC were prohibited from practicing or competing in games.
‘A CLEAR CONFLICT OF INTEREST’
The Athletic Department’s practice has drawn criticism from outside the University.
Western Carolina University Prof. Kadence Otto, the acting president of The Drake Group, a national college sports watchdog organization, said the bowl game perks practice is “highly unethical” and “a clear conflict of interest.”
“From an ethical perspective, should that money be going to pay for a faculty member who is supposed to be a neutral member on this committee?” Otto asked, referring specifically to the Athletic Department’s bowl game funds. “Certainly there could be something going on; namely, they’re feeling pressured or obligated to keep these athletes eligible.”
Otto, who teaches in WCU’s Business Administration and Law and Sport Management department, also said she disagreed with the Athletic Department’s and University administration’s justification of the practice by citing precedent and saying that other colleges and universities do it.
“So it’s based on tradition — so what?” Otto said. “Because everyone else does it, that means it’s OK if we do it?”
Ohio University Assistant Prof. David Ridpath, former president of The Drake Group, coached wrestling at Division I Ohio University in Athens and later served as assistant athletic director at Marshall University, also a Division I school, in Huntington, W.Va.
Ridpath, who led The Drake Group for three years, said that while he believed the University’s practice presents a conflict of interest, he said the broader idea of giving faculty members exposure to the workings of their university’s athletic department — which could include an occasional trip to a sporting event — can be beneficial.
Ridpath said that, ideally, a faculty member’s academic department could pay for the trip rather than the athletic department.
However, he conceded that practices like the University’s will continue to take place at colleges and universities across the country no matter what. The key, he said, is ensuring that faculty members make it as clear as possible that they aren’t being influenced by athletic department-funded perks.
“It’s good to have that faculty involvement, but we as faculty members have to guard zealously in the area of faculty integrity,” he said. “The bottom line is perception, and it is something that you have to watch. And as faculty, we have to guard against this, as perception many times is reality.”