Sunday, January 18, 2004

Vanderbilt athletics: Not business as usual

University takes chance on 'integrating' athletes


At Vanderbilt University, it used to be a big deal to see one of the basketball players on campus.

It wasn't because they didn't go to class; it was because most of the athletic department's support staff -- tutors, counselors, coaches -- had offices in the McGugin Center near the western edge of the university's 323-acre campus.

So when they weren't in class or practicing, the players were in the McGugin Center.

Vanderbilt's athletes were, in an unintended way, segregated from their peers. That put them in the same boat as their peers at other major universities with big-time sports programs, including Kansas University.

Former KU basketball standout Kirk Hinrich recently told the Chicago Sun-Times, "In college, you have 115 practices together, and you're on the road, and it's like you're alienated from the student body. Those are your friends. In college, I may have had one or two friends not on the basketball team.''

Vensherrie Campbell, a 22-year-old senior on Vanderbilt's track team, echoes Hinrich's sentiments:

"All through high school, they pound it into your head that you've got to be a well-rounded student to get into college," she said. "But when you get in college, if you're an athlete, you're told the only thing the matters for the next four years is athletics. It's like all the talk about being well-rounded doesn't matter anymore."

At Vanderbilt, that's changing.

"You see (athletes) on campus all the time now; they're much more a part of the university," said Virginia Shepherd, a pathology professor at Vanderbilt's medical center and a past chairwoman of the university's faculty senate.


Vanderbilt University athletes Jason Holwerda and Vensherrie Campbell walk to class across the Vanderbilt campus. Holwerda is the starting guard for the Commodores men's basketball team, and Campbell throws shot put, discus and hammer on the track team. Vanderbilt's revolutionary new system of merging the athletic department with the rest of the university has drawn attention from other big-time sports universities.

Last year, Vanderbilt folded its athletic department tutors in with its academic support program, which is housed in the Sarratt Student Center in the middle of campus.

"Just the simple act of their having to walk from McGugin to the student center has brought about a degree of integration that's been a positive," Shepherd said. "At the very least, they're meeting people and having conversations they wouldn't have had before."

Embraced by athletes

That's exactly what Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee had in mind last year when he bucked the status quo by merging the athletic department with the rest of the university.

Gee's reforms rocked the world of big-time college sports and its athletic departments, which have grown accustomed to separate decision-making, separate bank accounts, separate everything from the universities that provide their names.

But at Vanderbilt, the tail of intercollegiate sports no longer wags the dog.

"You're not going to find many athletic directors who want to go anywhere near this," said David Williams, Vanderbilt's vice chancellor in charge of university affairs, student life and, since September, athletics.

"It's not at all what they're used to," he said.

Though wary at first, Vanderbilt's student athletes have come to embrace the change.

"When you're part of the 'athlete society,' there's a lot that you don't get to do: things like student government, or being in a play or one of the (extracurricular) clubs," said Campbell, who also is president of the Student Athletic Advisory Board.

"I want that 'college experience.' I don't want to look back on my four years here and say, 'I wished I'd been in this club or joined that sorority.'"


Vensherrie Campbell practices the hammer throw Thursday on the track outside the student recreation center at Vanderbilt University. Campbell says she doesn't want athletics to rob her of "the college experience," and she hopes changes at Vanderbilt will help in her quest.

No athletic director

Today, Vanderbilt has neither an athletic director nor an athletic department.

Coaches still coach. But instead of answering to the athletic director, they report to the vice chancellor.

The duties of the department's tutors, counselors, fund-raisers and bookkeepers haven't changed. But they, too, answer to the university rather than the athletic department.

Instead of two administrations performing similar tasks, there is one.

Running one administration, Williams said, is less expensive and more efficient.

"We just saved a bunch a money because we found out the university gets its printing done at a fraction of what the athletic department had been paying," Williams said.

"And we've got accreditation people who do all the NCAA stuff. They're working with the people who handle all the (medical school's) hospital accreditation stuff," he said. "So in the future, when they're working on the NCAA accreditation, they'll have access to some extra bodies; same thing with the hospital accreditation."

New opportunities

It's better for the athletes, too.

"We just had a meeting where it was pointed out that a high percentage of our students take part in at least one of our study-abroad programs, but almost none of our student athletes get to do that," Williams said. "So now we've got a group looking at what we can do to create opportunities for some of our student athletes to maybe play soccer or baseball overseas."

Williams dismissed often-heard concerns that the reforms were sure to hurt Vanderbilt's recruiting efforts.

"We didn't lose a single recruit," he said. "We've not had one (recruit) back out of a visit."

Williams said most recruits and their parents, especially, have embraced the changes.

"There are all kinds of programs out there that can say, 'We can get you into pro ball.' We can say that, too," he said. "That's OK for the 1 percent who are truly good enough. But what about the 99 percent who aren't going to go pro? What do you tell them?

"We tell them that at Vanderbilt, they're going to be part of the university at large; they're going to have that 'college experience' that's going to lead to the career of their choice. It's not going to be just four years and out."

Not scandal-driven

Vanderbilt's reorganization was not driven by scandal.


Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins, left, and Chancellor Robert Hemenway chat before the start of a men's basketball game against Villanova at Allen Fieldhouse. Hemenway says KU isn't likely to follow the Vanderbilt model and merge its athletic department with the rest of the university.

"That had nothing to do with it," Williams said. "We just saw that everything was headed in the wrong direction."

Kansas University's athletic department, too, appears to be scandal-free.

So what are the chances that KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway will follow Vanderbilt's lead?


"The comments I hear from my colleagues at other universities is that it's not a good idea," Hemenway said.

For starters, he said, the two schools are cut from different cloths.

Vanderbilt is a private university; KU is public. KU has close to 30,000 students; Vanderbilt has 10,000.


Vensherrie Campbell, a senior at Vanderbilt University from Hephzibah, Ga., studies at the Sarratt Student Center, the Vanderbilt student union, on Thursday.

Gee had the support of his board. Hemenway's board, the Kansas Board of Regents, has shown no interest in telling its presidents and chancellors how to run their athletic departments.

Also, Hemenway said, he doesn't see the need for a radical, Vanderbilt-type overhaul.

"We have a very strong tradition here in the integration of our athletic and academic programs," he said. "And we've got an athletic department that's not been prone to scandal; in fact, the tradition here has been just the opposite.

"I know as chancellor, I am totally committed to that tradition of integrity -- totally. And I know that (KU athletic director) Lew Perkins is as strongly committed to running a program with integrity as anybody in America."


Jill Dorsey, a Wellsville junior and a member of KU's volleyball team for the past three years, agreed with Hemenway's assessment.

"I don't feel isolated at all. It's true that my life is very structured and I have a pretty strenuous schedule; that's a choice I made," she said. "But even with all that, my nights are usually free. I get out, I do things."

Still, she said she understood Hinrich's lament.

"What he said is very true," Dorsey said. "But I love my teammates. We are like sisters who see each other every day. But that's not something I regret. I love it."

KU soccer player Maggie Mason, an Elmira, Ontario, senior, said student athletes' schedules tended to be rigorous, but their interest in outside activities was typical.

"I know athletes who don't do anything," she said. "But I have friends who aren't athletes and don't do anything, either."

Mason said student athletes do, in fact, tend to hang out with other athletes. "But isn't that what you do if you're in a sorority? You hang out with your sorority sisters," she said. "I don't see how it's any different."

Athletic arms race

Still, Hemenway said he was troubled by the recent wave of collegiate athletic scandals -- everything from tainting a murder investigation to doctoring academic transcripts -- at Baylor, Missouri, Ohio State, Georgia and Fresno State.

He's also aware of the growing resistance among university faculties to the "arms race" that's led to basketball and football coaches routinely earning more than a million dollars a year, while top-notch professors, at KU, for example, are lucky to earn one-tenth that amount.

The disparity has professors, and others, doubting their universities' priorities.

"At some point in all this, there's a fairly fundamental question that ought to be asked, and that's, 'What is the mission of the university, and how do athletics contribute to that mission?'" said John Hoopes, an associate professor of anthropology at KU.

Hemenway said he would like nothing more than to pay professors as much as coaches. But coaches' salaries, he said, are subject to "economies" that don't exist for professors.

"We live in a society in which the public's interest in sports is absolutely huge," Hemenway said. "You know, a few weeks ago I happened to catch part of a (U.S.) Senate hearing on whether the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) was fair. Now, think about that for a minute. Out of all issues in the world today, the Senate saw fit to hold a hearing on college football and how we pick a champion. That should tell you how big sports are in our society."

Highest paid?

Successful coaches -- KU's Bill Self or North Carolina's Roy Williams, for example -- can command high salaries. So, too, can athletic directors, which is why KU athletic director Lew Perkins is paid a base salary of $400,000 a year.

Reports indicate Perkins is the Big 12 Conference's highest-paid athletic director. But it's also true, Hemenway said, that Perkins' pay package is in line with those at Kentucky and Arizona.

"We have an athletic director who's one of the best known, most respected athletic directors in the country, and who's very successful at his profession," Hemenway said. "Consequently, he is well-compensated."

The extent of Perkins' compensation is unknown; the university has refused to disclose public records outlining supplemental income and benefits.

At Vanderbilt, Williams said he doubted he ever would be paid $400,000 for overseeing the university's sports programs.

"No, that won't happen here," he said. "If we had that kind of money, we wouldn't spend it on administration, we'd put it into talent. By that I mean scholarships."

Vanderbilt officials, citing the university's status as a private institution, declined to release Williams' salary. Published reports, however, show that Gee, Williams' boss, is the second-highest paid university president in America, earning $852,023 in salary, benefits and deferred compensation in the most recently completed fiscal year.

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