I have some thoughts on the rather weird interaction between the economics of big time college sports and the psychology of the university presidents who oversee those sports:
When he was chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, the economist Clark Kerr famously quipped in a faculty meeting that his job had devolved into providing parking for the faculty, sex for the students, and athletics for the alumni.
True as this observation may have been when Kerr uttered it in 1958, it is far truer today. When I received my B.A. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1982, the total endowment of the entire university was around $115 million. Since then it has shot into the stratosphere — last year it reached a valuation of $17 billion.
That’s a more than 5,000% increase in real dollar terms for those of you scoring at home.
Where does that money come from?
Michigan’s business school is named after Stephen M. Ross, a real-estate developer and the owner of, among many other things, the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. Ross is a diehard Wolverine fan: In addition to the business school, the entire athletic campus is also named after him. Ross has given hundreds of millions of dollars to the university — and he is one of many extraordinarily rich people whose affections for Michigan’s sports teams in general, and its football program in particular, have inspired them to help build the university’s once modest endowment to its now staggering heights.
When Michigan raised over five billion dollars in its latest fundraising campaign, about 94% of the money came from people who donated at least five thousand dollars to it, which means, back of the enveloping here, that 6% of that five billion came from the 95% of donors who gave less than that. So basically the contributions of hundreds of thousands of donors were essentially symbolic, while those of a few thousand extremely to incredibly rich people funded the whole thing.
Is it time for a Gordon Gee story? It is:
While genuine fandom grows organically with time, and perhaps eventually fades in a similar way, obligatory administrative fandom operates differently. It is an artificial psychological state, that the adept administrator must stimulate within himself as a matter of synchronizing his new professional identity with the passions that animate the residents and alumni of the institution he has just joined.
Consider in this light the awkward career trajectory of Gordon Gee, who has served two separate tenures as president of Michigan’s football archrival, Ohio State University. (Gee is now in his second tenure as West Virginia University’s president). During his first go-around, Gee committed the horrendous faux pas of referring to a game with Michigan that had just ended in a tie as “one of our greatest wins ever.” Nearly 20 years later, during his second term, Gee (over?)compensated for this by, when asked if he was considering firing the fabulously successful but scandal-ridden head football coach Jim Tressel, by replying, “No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear. I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
The real point of this whole thing is this:
To be a long-term member of a university community, as traditionally the vast majority of the tenured faculty has always been, is to identify with whatever aspects of the institution seem essential to it, in ways that to at least some extent set it apart from other universities. This goes beyond cheering for the college’s teams, who indeed many faculty members care little or nothing about, except perhaps to the extent that success on the playing field makes tight-fisted state legislators and deep-pocketed donors more likely to bestow their largess on the institution as a whole. But only the most cynical and self-interested longtime faculty member can remain completely immune to the siren call of a more general school spirit. The loyalties to the sports teams of these places are thus often an echo of this deeper and more significant loyalty.
The irony here is that, as professional university administrators become more like top corporate officers, who move from company to company as part of a stylized career progression, universities are run increasingly by people who have no organic connection to institutions that have always depended on precisely those kinds of connections to make them what they are.