(Reproduced with the permission of Carl Wieman)
Recent events should encourage the citizens of Colorado to reflect on the condition and purpose of their “flagship” institution of higher education. The University of Colorado is currently facing tremendous difficulties and many critical issues. State support has been dropping precipitously, budgets are being slashed, and the state government has set limits on tuition and spending that constrain the ability of the University to respond to these cuts. The Law School faces possible loss of accreditation because of its dilapidated building; the replacement of which has been repeatedly delayed. The very survival of CU as a public university is being threatened by the constraints imposed by the Tabor amendment and other mandated requirements on state revenues and spending. So in this time of crisis, how are our Regents and top administrators spending their time?
This is remarkably easy to find out. One only need look at the front page of the newspaper every morning to get full coverage of their activities. They are (again) devoting all of their time and efforts to defusing the latest embarrassing incident coming out of the football program. Every day we see the President, Chancellor, Provost, and Regents holding press conferences, speaking with countless reporters, meeting with legislators and the Governor, all in an effort to deal with this issue. Meanwhile, the other problems facing the University are neglected. However, I do not see this choice of priorities as an indication of their personal flaws. The current group of Regents and high level administrators may well be the best we have had during my twenty years at CU. Their response is exactly the same as what we have seen with other administrators many times in the past and tells us not about them, but rather the true nature of what we have become as an institution. I would say that it indicates how corrupt our values as a University have become, except that I am not sure we can claim any longer to be a “University”. An “academic appendage to the football program” would seem to be a more honest description.
The actual details of the latest scandal and the validity of the charges and counter-charges are not particularly relevant in this regard. What is relevant is that over the past few decades there have been a steady series of incidents involving the football program that have received large amounts of publicity and brought embarrassment to the University. Each time they occupy the leaders of the University to the near-exclusion of everything else. If the athletic program was subsidiary to the University, rather than vice-versa, it would be run in a much different fashion. Any incident bringing bad publicity to the University would result in the people in charge in the athletic department being quickly replaced for being deficient in an essential aspect of their job. Meanwhile, the leading CU administrators would continue to focus on the health and well-being of the University as an educational institution. Sadly, in the latest response and in the actions of prior administrations there is not even the pretense that athletics should play such a subsidiary role. I happened to work with a former CU President during two brief periods that coincided with the replacement of the Chancellor of the Boulder campus and the replacement of a football coach. The President devoted enormously more attention and effort to the latter. During both processes the President was in regular consultation with the Regents, and neither the President nor the Regents ever gave any indication that they might have the slightest doubts as to the appropriateness of these priorities.
It may well be unrealistic to hope that we can ever return to being a University first and an athletic program second. However, the citizens of Colorado should ask themselves if this really is what they want in the lead institution charged with educating their children and future employees. The views expressed above are those of the author and (unfortunately) not necessarily those of the University of Colorado.
Distinguished Professor of Physics, CU Boulder
2001 Nobel Laureate in Physics