Episode 4: Athletic Programs Place in Higher Education

What is the president's role in athletics and how do athletics fit into the higher education picture? This episode we look at the purpose and how we can do better at meeting that purpose.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi everybody, you’re listening to Solutions for Higher Education. My name is Steve Meredith and joining me as always is the president of Southern Utah University, Scott Wyatt. Good morning, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Good morning, Steve.

Meredith: Good to see you. And today we’re going to talk a little bit about one of the roles of being a university president that perhaps not a lot of people know about. As our president, that means you’re a member of the governing board of our athletic conference, the Big Sky Conference, and I know that you’re been recently attending Big Sky meetings and you wanted to talk a little bit about athletics this morning.

Wyatt: Yeah, so one of my jobs as university president is to be on the governing board of our Division 1 athletic conference. If only my junior high school coach could see me now. (Laughter). Southern Utah University, like many, many universities, is participating as a Division 1 athletic program, and our conference, governed by the presidents, it gives me a chance to spend a lot of time thinking about athletics and the purpose of athletics, and how does college athletics fit in the broader mission of a university?

Meredith: And in your mind, are we doing a good job of fitting it in the broader goals of the university?

Wyatt: Well, I don’t know the answer to that. But I do believe we can do better. So, this is kind of…you know, if you were to look, Steve, at the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) strategic plan and they’re revising the plan now—they’re working on an update—if you were to look at that, what you would see is kind of what you would expect to see. Which is: we want to improve the experience for the student; we want to improve diversity; we want to make sure that they get a great academic experience; that they have the opportunities that other students have, all of these kinds of things. They’re all internally focused on this small number of students who are athletes. At least predominantly that’s where it’s focused, rather than this externally focused set of strategic goals that have a much broader mission.

Meredith: And would probably fit better with the overall goals of a university?

Wyatt: So, let’s kind of look at the overall goals of Southern Utah University. And I assume all, or virtually all institutions of higher education, we start with this great aspirational goal of making the world a better place. We see our role as preparing students for democracy, for the form of democracy that we have. We see ourselves as bridging cultures and ideas and helping pull people together, that we have this great opportunity to…I mean, I don’t know a better word for it… to help promote world peace. To help promote strength of communities and everything else. And so we start with this big picture, and then we say, “How do we accomplish this?” Well, we accomplish this by strengthening individuals. We do it by helping people one at a time develop the skills to have a job that can sustain them and their families. We do it one at a time by helping students learn about other cultures and societies; ideas. We prepare people to engage in a global economy… it’s a long list. But we aim for these big aspirational goals by helping individuals.

Now, college athletics is a part of college, and so it would be nice if the NCAA, for example, would put in their strategic plan to help with these great big aspirational goals.

Meredith: It might also help their public perception. I know that there’s a healthy amount of skepticism about—certainly large athletic programs—and how much of what you just described their actually doing, and even…even just generally about college athletics. I think there’s some data that shows those of us on college campuses that are not part of the athletics programs have a… have distrust of that. I’m not speaking for myself personally now, but there’s some nationally derived data that you have about that.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: And it’s a little bit shocking actually.

Wyatt: Yeah. And it’s a surprise how many people think college athletics is all about making money. Of course, at Southern Utah University we’re not making money. It costs us a lot more than what it brings in. So…

Meredith: So why do we do it? I mean, if we say that college athletics is the front porch to the university, is that to just bring people in to entertain them and hope to break even? Or how can it fit into those larger aspirational goals that you mentioned?

Wyatt: Yeah. So I think that if the NCAA and the conferences would state that their goals are to pursue the broad ambitions of the universities in which they sit, and as you said, not limited to the students that are participants, not limited to those who are entertained or delighted or inspired by a contest, but actually to adopt these big goals and…so for example, you know, if college athletics is the front porch of a university, then this front porch should be brining people in. Not in to be entertained, but in to be educated. And what we’re seeing nationally is this small decline in people going to college. We’re struggling with that with men.

Meredith: Yeah, enrollment data shows males enrolling at even lower rates than women. It’s accelerating among men.

Wyatt: And we’re struggling to get students to complete nationally. We’re not really struggling so much with these things at Southern Utah University because we’re seeing a growing population of students—it’s growing, our completion rates are rising—but nationally, this is a real challenge. The next generation might actually be less educated than the current generation.

Meredith: Yeah that’s…

Wyatt: That’s a dangerous trend.

Meredith: It is a dangerous trend.

Wyatt: And so the front porch of the university could say, “One of our leading strategic goals is to bring people onto the front porch and inside the house.” And inside the house opens them up to this wealth of opportunities of learning and growing and developing, getting credentials, preparing for jobs. We know that college graduates are less likely to rely on welfare at sometime in their life. They’re less likely to be unemployed or underemployed. They’re more likely to live longer and healthier lives. All of these benefits of a higher education promote these great aims. And so imagine if we said nationally, “Let’s take some of the most well-known, admired, respected athletes—men and women in different sports—people who the youth of America know by face and by name because they see them on television all the time, and we could convince these student athletes to help us promote these goals.” You know, I can…I can see these wonderful television ads, or visits to communities and speeches and whatever, where the athletes are saying, “Look, I’m in college, not because I want to play basketball, even though I love basketball, but I’m here to make a better life for me and for my family. I want a job. I want to work. I want to contribute to my community. I want to know how to be part of this democracy. I want to learn how to vote. How to read a newspaper and figure out how to sort through facts and facts that aren’t quite so facts…” (laughter) I mean, to take this massive platform we have and use it to promote the common good. To get people motivated to come through that front door. Off the porch, into the door.

So I actually think that there are a lot of athletes in a lot of athletic programs that are working on this. But it’s in a small scale. You know, our teams will go into an elementary school and read or talk to students and try to inspire them to go to college and I think that there’s a lot of schools doing those kinds of things. But until we all come together—create a big, lofty goal and design a strategy as the entire NCAA—we’re going to miss so many opportunities. And once we state the goal, write it down, and go after it, we do what athletes do, which is fight, work hard, sacrifice, pull together as teams. I think that we would be surprised and shocked as to what good could be done if we stated a goal, developed a plan, put together the team if I can use that metaphor, and then went after it. We could make a significant dent in childhood obesity. We could make a significant contribution to more people going to college. We could make a great impact on the youth wanting to get good jobs.

Meredith: Strengthening their communities…

Wyatt: …Strengthening their communities. We’ve got a great pulpit. We’re not using it. We should. This should be one of the leading strategic goals of the NCAA and our athletic conferences.

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast from Southern Utah University with president Scott Wyatt. Thanks for joining us, we’ll be back again soon. Bye bye.