Thursday, November 1, 2007

During my interview process, I was asked on more than one occasion about my experience with athletics. While I had not had a direct role in overseeing athletics before, I have spent practically all of my career in Big 12 and Big 10 schools. So I understand the central role that athletics play in the university experience—for students, for many faculty and staff, and certainly to the general public.

I know that the Hawkeyes are “the biggest game” in the state. One of my first official acts as President was to attend the State Fair this past August. I had a wonderful day at the University of Iowa booth. My time at the fair was coincident with the presence of our Athletic Director, Gary Barta. It was very clear that athletics plays an important role in our presence at the Fair. It was great to mingle with so many devoted staff members and enthusiastic fans. And I learned first-hand how important Hawkeye athletics are to the people of Iowa.

For many of our citizens, the Hawkeyes are Iowa’s “professional” sports teams. That, of course, is a double-edged sword. It creates enormous pride and goodwill for us. And it makes excellence and vigilance even more critical.

I know that we have much to be proud of in our athletics program. The Hawkeyes perform well as both students and athletes, as they should. This is one of my own highest priorities for our athletics program. I am aware that, last year, ours was the only football team in the nation to boast three first-team academic all-American players. I’m also very intrigued by some research by our own Sociology Professor Michael Lovaglia showing a strong link between athletic success and academic performance. You may have heard that, along with a colleague from the University of Maryland, Professor Lovaglia has designed a “Student Athlete Performance Rate.” This SAPR combines academic progress and team success. Iowa is among the best for football—tied for 12th with Oklahoma.

While, given the season, I am citing some football statistics, I of course realize that our performance across the athletic spectrum is just as important. And I am proud that our recent NCAA Certification means we are operating in substantial conformity with Division I principles. I am pleased that I am able to start my presidency with our athletics programs in good shape on all fronts.

Strong athletics programs with high integrity come about through having the right people in the right places. Therefore, one of my major responsibilities as President of the University is to charge Director of Athletics Gary Barta with the responsibility to hire superior administrators and coaches. In turn, it is my—and our—expectation that Gary, the coaches, and the entire athletics staff will manage programs that recruit, coach, and mentor highly motivated student-athletes. These student-athletes then embrace their own responsibilities. Primary among them is to endeavor to achieve at a high level academically and athletically. We expect our student-athletes to make positive contributions to the University of Iowa community not only during their stay on the UI campus, but long after graduation as well.

The institution requires Gary and his staff to achieve all of this while operating well within the boundaries established by the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference. They also are expected to achieve these goals independently—that is, without any General Fund support. Where possible, Athletics will continue the long-standing practice of contributing—financially and otherwise—to projects and efforts that advance the institution as a whole, not only the intercollegiate athletics enterprise.

An excellent example of the latter is the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center. The Department of Intercollegiate Athletics has committed $9 million of financial support for the construction of this $69 million facility. That number is slightly more than double of the original plan. Clearly, our men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs will benefit tremendously from this new facility. Some athletics departments may have balked at the request to increase their level of participation in such a project. But our Intercollegiate Athletics leadership understands the importance of this facility to the entire campus. They have embraced the idea of contributing more to our campus. They are now working closely with the appropriate staff on campus to help make this important addition to student—and community—life on our campus a reality.

We know that the Iowa Hawkeyes will not win every game they play. But, as an institution, we expect to provide the opportunity for the Hawkeyes to compete at the highest level in the Big Ten Conference and the NCAA. Our expectation is that we will work with the coaching staff to provide the resources necessary to do so. Oh, and, for the record, I’ll leave it to the Director of Athletics to define exactly what is meant by “the highest level in the Big Ten Conference and the NCAA.”

As an educational institution, we remain committed to the “student” in “student-athlete.” Our conviction is that you can, in fact, be successful at both. We will not graduate every student-athlete who comes to our campus. (We do not graduate every student, period, who comes to our campus.) As this committee and those who follow our intercollegiate athletics program are aware, however, The University of Iowa has a very long history of high achievement by its student-athletes as both students and athletes. It is my expectation that that will continue.

Whether it be team performance, graduation rates, or citizenship, I take a big-picture view of the annual results which, history says, will fluctuate. When all is well, I’ll be at the front lines boosting our wins. And, as maybe you’ve seen, I’m not above taking the credit. But none of us can be “fair-weather fans.” When all is not well and our constituencies are asking why, I’ll turn to Gary Barta and ask if we are simply experiencing a “bump in the road.” But I will also not be afraid to ask if we have strayed from our principles and our culture. I’ll ask if we have lost the “way of doing the business of intercollegiate athletics at the University of Iowa.” That way has, over time, proven to be successful

No matter what I ask Gary—or any of the athletics staff—it is my expectation that our people in Intercollegiate Athletics will have already identified the problems. And, more importantly, I expect that they will have already headed down the path of working the solutions.

I believe it’s important to note that none of this comes easily or automatically. Intercollegiate athletics at this level of the NCAA are truly “extreme sports”—they are extremely competitive, extremely challenging, and extremely complex. And we all know that our intercollegiate athletics program is extremely visible. Many more times than not, that is a very positive thing for this institution.

I’m here today in part to share my initial assessment of Hawkeye athletics. I’ll keep it simple: Based on what I’ve seen during my short time on our campus, I am confident we have the right people in the right places doing the right things.