College Football, Academics, and Conflict of Interest

American college sports are a big deal. Some people say too big, as big-money sports teams threaten to overshadow the presumptive first mission of universities, which is education. Here’s a story about a possible conflict of interest at the University of Michigan, involving sports teams and the the university committee put in place to oversee academic progress of student athletes.

From The Ann Arbor News: Profs’ bowl perks look like conflict to U-M auditors (by Dave Gershman). It’s a good, in-depth story, worth a thorough read. Here are the first paragraphs:

University of Michigan professors who help oversee the academic
welfare of student athletes receive free vacations to Michigan
football bowl games that are paid by the Athletic Department. It’s a
perk that has raised conflict of interest questions in a university
audit and among some faculty on campus.

The issue is scheduled to be debated by elected faculty
representatives at a meeting on Monday.

Academic and athletic department administrators say the trips for
members of the Committee on Academic Performance do not influence the
recipients to make decisions that favor the athletic department or its

The issue arose when the university’s internal auditors noted the
practice in an audit in 2007….

Could a trip worth thousands of dollars have any influence on the decisions of an committee member? Could it be seen as doing so? Could that perception affect the reputation of the committee, or the university? Some of the profs on the committee are indignant at the very suggestion. “Why,” asks one of them, “would anyone care unless one was impugning without any evidence, with no actual suggestion that this has happened, misconduct by members of the (committee).” The Provost of the university sings the same tune: “These are faculty members of great integrity …. To imply otherwise would be unjustified.”

Let me say this clearly: pointing out a conflict of interest is not the same as accusing anyone of anything, or impugning anyone’s character. When we point out a COI, we are merely noting the structure of a certain situation — we are noting that someone trusted with the authority to make a decision is situated so that a factor (financial or otherwise) that clearly ought not influence that decision could do so. Of course, once a COI has been noted, and found to be avoidable, what you do next absolutely does reflect on your character.
Favourite COI Books:
Conflict of Interest in the Professions, by Davis and Stark, and Conflicts of Interest: Challenges and Solutions, edited by Moore et al.
See also:
Ethics and the University, by Michael Davis and Ethics and College Sports, by Peter French.
Thanks to Jeff for the story.

1 comment so far

  1. Bryn Williams-Jones on

    For a good discussion of the history of American university sports teams, and the ethical challenges posed for students and university faculty, see Ch. 7 of Derek Bok’s excellent 2003 book < HREF="" REL="nofollow">“Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education”<> (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

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