Former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice speaks during a news conference at the NCAA headquarters on April 25, 2018, in Indianapolis. The Commission on College Basketball, led by Rice, released a detailed 60-page report seven months after the NCAA formed the group to respond to a federal corruption investigation that rocked college basketball. (AP/Darron Cummings)

By Ted Mitchell

Across the country, fall Saturdays are a colorful and noisy spectacle as millions of college football fans pack stadiums. As fall turns to winter, college basketball takes over, culminating in March Madness and a frenzy of office pools and workers calling in sick when their favorite team is scheduled to hit the court.

Intercollegiate athletics, and particularly the major revenue-producing sports of football and basketball, has often been called an institution’s “front porch.” Colleges and universities are acutely aware of the public relations—and admissions—gold that a winning team in a high-profile sport represents. Likewise, a damaging scandal can wreak reputational harm that goes well beyond the athletics program.

Indeed, a working paper released this month by economists at Appalachian State University and Seton Hall University found that an athletics scandal at an individual university—as measured by NCAA postseason tournament bans of men’s basketball teams—“lowers both the quantity and quality” of the students who enroll.

That’s just one of the reasons why, as federal prosecutors investigate allegations of widespread corruption in college basketball, higher education must acknowledge that our collective front porch needs a far-reaching rehab job, not just a spring cleaning.

Fortunately, the Commission on College Basketball has done its job by delivering a set of far-reaching and meaningful recommendations that provide higher education with the opportunity to hit the reset button on intercollegiate athletics. The commission, appointed by the NCAA but independent, was chaired by former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who is a professor and former provost at Stanford University.

First, let’s be clear about the problem the basketball corruption case presents for the entire American higher education community.

This isn’t just a matter of one or two individual institutions suffering through a temporary public relations imbroglio and a short-term decline in enrollment. It isn’t even limited to the institutions that, whether fairly or not, have been swept up in charges of payoffs and other improprieties involving agents, shoe companies, players and their parents, and coaches. It isn’t even limited to sports.

As recent polling has shown, higher education already is grappling with the serious challenge of an erosion of public trust in the value of higher education.

It’s more than a minor paradox. In this time of civic turmoil and controversy, colleges and universities remain highly respected and postsecondary education has never been more important to individuals, communities, our economy and our democracy.

But it’s also true that our standing has fallen somewhat in recent years, particularly among white, working class Americans, and this despite a mountain of demographic evidence that people with a college degree are better off than those without one by virtually every measure.

Postsecondary education creates an enduring wage premium for individuals. It will be necessary for the vast number of jobs created in the future. And higher education is linked to greater civic participation, personal health, and general well-being.

But we can hardly maintain our credibility, and expect our skeptics to accept our affirmative case for the value of a college degree, if college and universities don’t step up and take bold action of the type recommended by the Rice Commission.

We are in an era where there already is a declining trust in virtually all institutions. Even the FBI is affected. Higher education again has retained a better standing than most sectors but is not immune to this phenomenon.

I know that ardent fans and influential boosters can make any president’s life difficult. And, of course, we all know the amount of money involved with big-time Division I athletics. But the stakes are too high to shrink from the need to clean up intercollegiate athletics.

In December 2016, my organization released a paper on academic integrity and intercollegiate athletics. Its findings grew out of an American Council on Education (ACE) Roundtable attended by nearly three dozen higher education leaders, including college and university presidents and chancellors, athletic directors and coaches, conference officials, student-athletes and faculty athletics representatives. It was co-chaired by my predecessor, Molly Corbett Broad, and Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia, then chair of the ACE Board of Directors.

The conclusions of the paper — called The Student-Athlete, Academic Integrity and Intercollegiate Athletics — were straightforward: Intercollegiate athletics programs should be part of an institutional culture of integrity that stresses the primacy of the academic mission and ensures that student-athletes are first and foremost students in programs of higher education.

Roundtable participants agreed that:

  • Intercollegiate athletics programs at all levels must respect the primacy of the academic enterprise and remain firmly grounded in it.
  • Intercollegiate athletics provides a significant educational opportunity when aligned with the mission of the institution.
  • Institutions must enable their student-athletes to have access to the same range and quality of academic pursuits as other students.
  • Academic integrity cannot be compromised by our colleges and universities, or by members of their campus communities.

Those are basic principles that every institutions should live by. If the academic enterprise doesn’t come first, above all else, then what is our mission and why should the public trust us?

But establishing the necessary prerequisite to academic integrity, an overall institutional culture of integrity, can’t happen in a climate where athletics scandals, whether directly involving academics or not, occur again and again.

The recommendations issued by the Commission on College Basketball may not be a cure all. But they are a major step toward a healthier intercollegiate athletics environment. And they are a necessary step if colleges and universities hope to affirm and strengthen the public’s trust in the value of higher education.

Ted Mitchell is president of the American Council on Education, which represents nearly 1,800 college and university presidents and related associations.