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Big Ten. Big mistake.

By C. Thomas McMillen,

C. Thomas McMillen, a former member of the House of Representatives (D-Md.), serves on the University of Maryland Board of Regents. He played on the school’s men’s basketball team from 1970 to 1974.

It’s a done deal: On Monday, the University of Maryland’s board of regents voted to have the school’s athletic department leave the Atlantic Coast Conference and join the Big Ten Conference.

I am on the board, and I opposed this decision primarily because of the way it was made. Most important, a change of this magnitude should not be made over a weekend, with minimal documentation, little transparency and no input from anyone who might be opposed to it. The board did not hear from any of the constituencies that will be affected by this change — not the students, faculty, student-athletes or alumni.

Reasonable people certainly can discuss the benefits and risks of this move. But confidentiality agreements imposed by the commissioner of the Big Ten squelched any real debate. Public universities receiving taxpayer money are supposed to operate under shared governance, but what happened at Maryland was governance by secrecy and exclusion.

The 16 members of the Board of Regents were notified Thursday of the proposal, and we participated in a telephone call Sunday in which the details were verbally presented to us. On Monday morning, we had to vote on the move.

When we asked why we couldn’t hear from other stakeholders, we were told that the nondisclosure agreement signed with the Big Ten prevented such a discussion. We were further told that, under the terms of that agreement, Maryland could lose the offer and the university president could be held personally liable if details were divulged.

Maryland couldn’t even discuss the proposal with the Atlantic Coast Conference, to which it had belonged for nearly 60 years and had helped found. The board members were each given a single piece of paper outlining the proposal, and it was taken away when Monday’s meeting ended. I get more documentation when I buy a cell phone.

Given that Maryland cannot join the Big Ten until 2014, why the big rush? The Big Ten needs Maryland to finalize a new TV package drawing on the Washington-Baltimore market, which is the fourth-largest in the nation. It wanted Maryland two years ago, and it will want Maryland tomorrow. There was plenty of time to build a real case for a move if it made sense.

The real problem is that commissioners of athletic conferences can dictate terms to universities that effectively hijack the possibility of debate, and that is just plain wrong.

When I was a member of Congress, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Rep. Ed Towns (D-N.Y.) and I sponsored the Student Right–to-Know Act, which was passed in 1990. This legislation requires universities to disclose information previously not revealed — the graduation rates of all students, including student-athletes, as well as information on campus crime and other matters.

I believe we need new legislation — the Stakeholder Right-to-Know Act — that would prohibit universities that receive federal funds from executing confidentiality agreements on behalf of their intercollegiate athletic programs, which limit information regarding transactions that should be provided to important stakeholders.

Right now, universities and their boards are captive to a process controlled by the commissioners of the various athletic conferences. Commissioners managing hundreds of millions of dollars are extorting what they need from the universities, and the schools are powerless to stand up to them. We need a national solution to end this practice. What happened at Maryland is just another case where outside athletic forces dictated terms to a university. Once more the tail wags the dog; once more athletics distorts higher education.

The writer, a former member of the House of Representatives (D-Md.), serves on the University of Maryland Board of Regents. He played on the school’s men’s basketball team from 1970 to 1974.

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