In an era of change in college athletics, Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro joined ESPN.com senior writer Lester Munson Thursday to speak about the role of college sports and the challenges Northwestern faces as a premiere academic university competing at a high level on the "Afternoon Shift" of WBEZ, Chicago's public radio station.
The discussion's jumping-off point was Northwestern's own investments in athletics, particularly as it relates to its ongoing large-scale marketing campaign and the recent issuing of two 10-year contracts, namely those of athletic director Jim Phillips and head football coach Pat Fitzgerald.
President Schapiro stressed the importance of investing in collegiate athletics because, as he views it, "athletics are the front porch of the university."
Like the front porch of a home, athletics are the most noticeable part of a university for the general public, and Schapiro added that at Northwestern, "we try to maintain a sufficiently high admission standard and we try to make sure -- there are 486 varsity athletes -- that they all reflect the finest values of the university."
Munson raised the question of how significant athletic achievement is in the greater collegiate landscape. "Now as a culture looking at the importance of these big time sports to institutions of higher learning," Munson said, "is it a measure of success that NU makes it into the (NCAA men's basketball) Tournament or it a measure of over-emphasis on basketball?"
Schapiro expressed that judging success on tournament berths would not represent an over-emphasis on basketball because a bid would benefit the University by placing it into the national spotlight and highlighting a wonderful academic program.
"If you win the right way, which is what we are trying to do, there's no better feeling," Schapiro said.
Munson and Schapiro also discussed the issue of college coaching salaries reaching extremely high levels. The two explored the extent to which these multi-million dollar salaries are distorting higher education.
Schapiro does not think that the exorbitant salaries are a reason to worry. "I'm an economist and most of us think that you pay the market," he said. "If the market is to pay someone $4 million to coach because they generate revenue, it's hard for me to say not to pay to the market."
A hot-button issue in college sports, Munson brought up the question of paying college athletes for the revenue they generate for their schools.
Schapiro stressed that the athletes are students first and spoke against paying student-athletes, or as he refers to them, "scholar-athletes." Schapiro offered another alternative that Northwestern extends to its scholar athletes:
"If scholar-athletes are disadvantaged because of NCAA rules and don't get proper spending money, I say give them spending money ... What I pushed for in the Big Ten is that we should have a means test, if you have [an athlete with financial needs] we should give them 2,000 dollars. That's very different than paying [everyone]."
Despite his misgivings about the overall state of high-profile college athletics, Munson said that Northwestern is doing things the right way.
"If only all the universities were like Northwestern and all conferences were like the Big Ten," Munson said. "It would be a quantum leap forward from what we have now."
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