Education

Iowa regents seek more information about university athletics

'For some reason that was just sacred. You just didn't go there'

Regent President Michael Richards (left) and Regent President Pro Tem Patty Cownie (right) look on as Bruce Harreld (center), University of Iowa president, gives a report during a Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Thursday, Sep. 13, 2018. (The Gazette)
Regent President Michael Richards (left) and Regent President Pro Tem Patty Cownie (right) look on as Bruce Harreld (center), University of Iowa president, gives a report during a Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Thursday, Sep. 13, 2018. (The Gazette)

MILFORD — Although Iowa’s Board of Regents lists maintaining “integrity in the administration of intercollegiate athletic programs” among its highest priorities, members said Wednesday the university athletic departments actually operate in silos and they want regularly to get more information.

“It’s such a public thing that we really need to be having more education about what’s going on in all the athletic departments at our regent universities,” board member Nancy Boettger said during a regent retreat being held this week in Northwest Iowa.

University athletics increasingly have been in the news for issues beyond what happens on the playing field.

Iowa recently legalized betting on sports — professional and collegiate — and state lawmakers are drafting “pay-for-play” bills modeled after one in California allowing college athletes to hire agents and get paid for the use of their names and likenesses.

Nationally and locally, university athletics have come under the microscope for Title IX violations, recruiting scandals and lawsuits — bleeding the campuses of resources through litigation payouts.

“Athletics tends to think of itself as being in a separate silo until there’s a $500 million judgment that hits the university and then all of a sudden you’re not in a silo,” regents President Mike Richards said.

Tom Meredith — a senior fellow with AGB Consulting, the consulting arm of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges — addressed regents during its retreat Wednesday and urged them to pay closer attention to athletics.

“You can’t run athletics, but you shouldn’t ignore athletics,” he said.

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Richards acknowledged the board had placed trust in the university presidents’ ability to oversee their athletic directors.

“We feel that our presidents are very responsible about monitoring the athletic departments,” he said. But for years, the board has received only financial reports of athletics and steered clear of operational details.

“We absolutely never were involved in it,” regent Patty Cownie said. “This is not something that we’re supposed to be even paying attention to. Period.”

Many regents on Wednesday said times are changing, and they want more information.

AGB’s Meredith said they’re entitled to it — although they should avoid trying to run athletics.

“That’s your role — to make sure people are doing right,” he said. “Say here’s what I need to know. You come talk to us. Tell us these things … and we’re going to hold you accountable.”

That should involve Title IX gender equity compliance, recruiting policies and practices and employee training.

“I don’t know that that’s ever been done, frankly,” said Cownie, who noted upward of 90 percent of the questions she fields from the public involve athletics. “Before this year, I don’t know that anybody ever even thought about doing it. For some reason that was just sacred. You just didn’t go there.”

Regents Executive Director Mark Braun said traditionally regents start the athletics oversight conversation with the institution’s president during closed-door performance reviews.

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But he said regents easily could ask the athletic directors at the universities they oversee to come and present publicly before the board, taking questions from members about operations and other issues.

“That’s easy enough to do,” Braun said.

But Meredith, the consultant, cautioned regents against sharing too much information with members of the public who come talk to them — especially when it comes to giving opinions.

“Be sure you don’t say too much … you’ve got to avoid that,” he told the regents. “Don’t ever give an answer. What you have to say is, a couple things, one, ‘I’m glad you brought that to my attention. We’ll look at that, but I can’t give you an answer.’”

Regents Wednesday didn’t dive into specific athletics issues facing their respective campuses — like how legalized sports betting might affect the schools and what pay-to-play legislation could mean for athletes and recruiting.

But Braun said the regents absolutely should know more about how athletic operations work — from top to bottom.

“That’s on us to reach out and figure that out,” regent Sherry Bates said.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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