Open Mike: Athletics role at the UO

July 21, 2016

Dear Colleagues and Friends,    

As the University of Oregon hosted the US Olympic Team Trials in track and field earlier this month, I passed the one year mark of my presidency. What a thrill to welcome some of the world’s greatest athletes to campus, to shake the hand of recent UO graduate Jenna Prandini as she left the track, and place a medal around UO student Devon Allen’s neck. I was thoroughly impressed with the caliber of the competition, the enthusiasm of the fans (including many of our alumni, faculty, and staff) and the way in which members of our campus hosted our guests. Participating in the trials was an exceptionally enjoyable way to reflect on my first year at the UO.

Experiences like this have surprised me. Before arriving on campus, I certainly expected the UO to put on world-class athletics events like the Olympic trials, based on its stellar athletics reputation. But I did not expect I would come to enjoy and greatly appreciate these events as much as I have. I am now a true Ducks fan.

As many of you know, I have had little experience with sports in my life, personally or as a law school dean and law professor. So this last year, I set about learning as much as I could about UO athletics so I could follow the action on the field, appreciate the role of our student athletes, and understand how athletics fits into the UO’s culture.

What I discovered in my year of lessons about Hayward Field, X’s and O’s, pick and rolls, and auxiliary budgets is that athletics brings incredible value to our institution. Athletic competition is part of being a Division I university and is woven into our identity, heritage, and history. Participating in athletics offers a wonderful opportunity for our students to build leadership skills and learn life lessons about how to deal with adversity. It is a source of pride and connection for our alumni, and an opportunity for us to come together as a community on a regular basis. 

The UO Department of Intercollegiate Athletics is one of the few in the nation that is self-supporting. It receives roughly $2 million in support for tutoring and student services, but generates enough revenue to fund all 21 sports and provides more than $11 million a year for our academic program by paying for the full cost of tuition for all student athletes, 85 percent of whom are nonresidents (something not all our peers do).

Athletics is successful by most objective measures in creating excellent student athlete experiences for the vast majority of participants, in achieving wins, in creating Olympic champions, and in managing their finances. The coaches, staff, and students athletes have created a culture of excellence that is respected throughout the nation.

Yet despite this success, athletics occasionally sparks controversy among some members of our faculty. This tension exists on every Division I campus in this nation and relates to concerns that athletics may compromise academic integrity either because of differential admissions criteria or because some athletes are unable to fully engage in our academic programs.

But at the University of Oregon, another source of tension exists which is more pernicious. Over the past 15 years, as our academic resources were repeatedly cut by the state and the status of some of our programs declined, our athletics program attracted greater support from donors and achieved ever-increasing success. Some faculty members grew increasingly uncomfortable with this imbalance. The interesting thing is that many of our alumni feel the same way, including those who give generously to athletics.

Our world-class faculty deserves the same quality of attention and investment as our athletics program, and the answer to the imbalance is to cultivate our research and academic enterprise with the same focus and in the same strategic way as we have for athletics. It is not to level down our athletics program. This is why I am spending so much of my time working to build our outstanding faculty ranks, expand our research profile, and improve our student success. We need to celebrate and feed the academic excellence that already exists on this campus in so many places, build the programs with potential, and when necessary, make hard decisions about programs that are unlikely to improve.

We are making progress toward that goal. In the last year, we have bolstered our research productivity, increased our tenure-track faculty ranks, and increased the number of PhD students on campus. We are realigning resources, advocating for public investments, and increasing philanthropy to advance the UO’s academic and research enterprise. I am particularly gratified that this year we raised more than $200 million in our capital campaign and that 80 percent of those dollars went to fund our academic program, including gifts to endow our zebrafish research, renovate laboratory space in Pacific Hall, fund faculty clusters, and endow the College of Education’s HEDCO Clinic. Let me be clear—I do not want our alumni to stop giving to athletics. Instead, I want them to dig deeper to support our academic program, too. And they are listening!

In short, I want to encourage everyone to come together around a shared vision of excellence for both academics and athletics. It is time to move the conversation away from bringing athletics down and instead set our sights on lifting the UO’s academic reputation up. We can have both world-renowned academics and dominant athletics teams and student athletes. I saw this play out at historic Hayward Field, as 11 current or former UO Ducks secured places at the Olympics in Rio. At the same time during the trials, many of our top researchers led running tours through and around campus as they talked about their research in green chemistry, evolutionary biology, poetry, special education, human physiology, and more. It was the perfect marriage of a vigorous mind-and-body workout. I have heard that many people who participated in the runs left enlightened, impressed, and excited about UO research.

I am committed to helping the UO achieve world-class status at every level, with focus, strategic investments, and commitment. I need your help and support to achieve this vision.




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