Trust, Accountability, and Integrity: Board Responsibilities for Intercollegiate Athletics

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) is pleased to share the results of its recent study on the engagement of governing boards in the oversight of intercollegiate athletics. 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. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics (KCIA), which has supported AGB’s leading work with governing boards and presidents since AGB issued its first formal statement on the topic in 2004, encouraged AGB to pursue this research to assess the challenges confronting board oversight of intercollegiate athletics. Through reports and analyses calling for more concerted involvement of institutional leadership in intercollegiate athletics from the early 1990s onward, both KCIA and AGB have contributed actively to the national dialogue.

In 2009, AGB’s Board of Directors approved a revised “Statement on Board Responsibilities for Intercollegiate Athletics,” which replaced its earlier statement issued in 2004. The 2009 statement, written with the input of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), clarified areas of board policy and oversight while clearly indicating that the administrative leadership of an institution’s athletics program should be firmly in the hands of chief executives of institutions and systems.

In this report, AGB explores what boards are really doing in the area of athletics oversight.

We surveyed chief executives and board chairs of Division I institutions, as well as systems that include Division I institutions, about how they have applied the recommendations from AGB’s 2009 statement and about other governance issues related to college sports. Our findings demonstrate substantive board engagement but also point to certain areas of responsibility that need to be strengthened. Although public and independent colleges, universities, and systems have their own governing boards and enjoy relative autonomy, they seem much less independent when it comes to intercollegiate sports. Powerful interests that benefit financially from big-time sports, as well as fans and booster clubs with emotional investments, can distort the clarity of mind required for effective governance.

The institutional leaders who responded to our survey and comprised our advisory group represent large athletics programs—either as board leaders, institutional chief executives, or system heads—and have guided our thinking and focus. Their responses to our survey make clear that the positive impact of college-sports programs on student athletes and colleges and universities can be significant and profound. Clearly, a disproportionate share of problems in intercollegiate athletics involves football and basketball programs and their broader oversight. Yet the findings and recommendations included in this report are broadly applicable to all athletics programs and pertinent to institutions across all competitive athletic divisions.

This report focuses on three recommendations for appropriate board engagement in intercollegiate 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.
  3. The board must educate itself about its policy role and oversight of intercollegiate athletics.

We are not urging boards to move into areas of management prerogative; AGB’s earlier statements on athletics make clear our recommendations about the ideal breadth and limitations of board engagement. However, there is no getting around the fact that the changes affecting higher education don’t stop at the water’s edge of intercollegiate sports. Further, while we urge boards to delegate the administration of their institutions’ sports programs to their chief executives, boards must still become more aware of the issues and engage actively and appropriately in policy considerations, which ultimately impact the institution’s financial welfare and reputation. We think these recommendations will help boards to strike the right balance in exercising their authority, and to restore the balance between academics and athletics. Getting governance right is part of the story. We must write that chapter or it will be written for us.

Our survey was conducted before the revelations of the Penn State University scandal. As with other cases, the impact at Penn State extends far beyond the reputational damage to its own athletics program or to the university. It was, instead, a painful reminder that all boards need to be well informed and must clearly establish the appropriate role of athletics in relation to the core values and academic mission of their institutions. When the board fails to provide effective oversight or ask the questions that hold the president of the institution accountable, the consequences can be enormous.

Several months ago a member of this project’s advisory group advised his colleagues that our report must answer the question, “‘Why do boards need to step up their oversight of intercollegiate sports?’ As the fiduciary body charged with being the steward of their institution or system,” he continued, “they really have no other option.”

We appreciate funding support from the Knight Commission for this study, as well as the active participation of the members of the project’s advisory group. AGB’s director of research, Merrill Schwartz, served as the primary staff lead on the project. We are also grateful to Greg Wegner, the director of program development for the Great Lakes Colleges Association and the author of several of AGB’s most essential project reports, for applying his considerable writing skills and good thinking to this report.

John T. Casteen, III
Director, AGB Intercollegiate Athletics Project
President Emeritus, University of Virginia

Richard D. Legon
President, Association of Governing Boards

Download the supplemental survey data.

2012