Lessons from the Happy Valley

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“First it giveth, then it taketh away.” The rock band Queens of the Stone Age lyrics sum up the situation at Pennsylvania State University.

On July 23, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced punitive measures against Penn State’s athletic program in response to the university’s internal investigation, which found administrators and coaches covered up the sexual abuse scandal surrounding former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. The NCAA fined Penn State $60 million, banned the school from participating in post-season play for the next four years and scrubbed the Nittany Lions’ football wins from the past 14 years of NCAA records.

Many cheered, but the most outspoken critics questioned whether the NCAA overstepped its bounds with a too-harsh punishment.

More important and a less popular discussion was not the NCAA fine’s fairness, but how American universities have reached the point where athletic departments’ can cough up a $60 million fine.

At UT, $60 million quadruples the money allocated to the university library system in the 2011-12 budget, and further dwarfs the teaching budgets apportioned to many schools and colleges campus-wide.

As with Penn State’s, but few others nationwide, UT’s athletic department is self-sustaining and isn’t subsidized by the university. And while Penn State’s $53.2 million annual revenue from football – which, not coincidentally, is roughly the amount of the NCAA’s fine – may seem large, it’s $20 million short of UT’s football program revenue from the 2010-11 fiscal year, the most recent period for which data is available publicly.

For thousands of students and alumni, college athletics are central to the university experience. UT’s athletic program contributes funds to the university’s general budget. Eager fans purchase season tickets and officially licensed UT merchandise (the royalties from which contribute to the athletic department’s yearly budget surplus). It is difficult to advocate completely forsaking the department, which earns yearly revenues more than twice the nearly $78 million annual budget for the College of Liberal Arts, the school with the largest budget allocation on campus.

Robert Maynard Hutchins, the reform-minded chancellor of the University of Chicago from 1945-1951 famously said: “There are two ways for a university to be great: It must either have a great football team or a great president.”

Hutchins abolished the University of Chicago’s intercollegiate football program and built a world renowned institution of higher education.

At Penn State, the football program and its former head coach, Joe Paterno, provided the school with millions of dollars’ worth of scholarships and endowment funds and also gave the school a source of pride and identity. But with its role in the Sandusky scandal, the same football program, the main event in State College, PA or “Happy Valley,” took from the campus what it once gave—money and morale.

Penn State and the University of Chicago teach our university not to conflate the success of our athletic teams with the success of our academic departments. The health of one, financial or otherwise, is often confused with the health of the other ­, a mistake.

The Texas Constitution mandates the establishment of “a university of the first class ... for the promotion of literature, and the arts and sciences.”

Having a football program that solely perpetuates its own success without significantly contributing to UT’s stated larger mission sidesteps the original justification for the university’s existence.

Penn State also shows that college football, where the stakes and dollar figures are so high, developed a culture of loyalty so unyielding that the welfare of disadvantaged children became a secondary consideration. Few athletic programs operate under stakes as high as those that existed in pre-scandal Penn State, but UT’s is among the few that do. The cautionary tale of Happy Valley is one from which UT must learn.