Student Loans: “Our Football Program is Self-Sustaining.”

This is an “urban myth” spun by university Development Officers charged with raising money for a new football stadium.  Development Officers cemented the bargain with special seating for big donors at home games, chartered plane trips to away games, “signing day” parties and other opportunities to network with fellow footballs fans and big donors.  The “urban myth” expanded – a top football program was essential to raise money to benefit students, to raise money for all individual programs.  I want to explore the question – “Do football programs add value to a university education?”

Penn State, with Joe Paterno as coach, has been a football icon since I attended college at Syracuse.  Penn State and Syracuse were arch-rivals. Football was a nice break from studying, an easy walk to the stadium and there was usually a good crowd.

Football programs at Penn State and Syracuse has changed dramatically in 50 years.  Today football is big business and could contribute significant amounts to reduce the tuition paid by students.  Instead football programs are “self-sustaining.” How does today’s football program fit into the mission of the university?

This is an excerpt from Penn State’s Mission and Public Charter – “Penn State is a multi campus public research university that educates students from Pennsylvania, the nation and the world, and improves the well being and health of individuals and communities through integrated programs of teaching, research, and service.”

Penn State’s football program does not fit into Penn State’s mission. This is the perfect time for Penn State Trustees to refocus the contribution of football and other sports programs to the “integrated teaching, research and service programs” at the university.  Penn State football and other athletic programs will be changing as Penn State is forced to adopt new rules of conduct.

Penn State Trustees should be looking at systemic changes that will insure a future for Penn State in the changing landscape of higher education.  If the Penn State Trustees have the courage to implement these two changes, the “playing field” will level and the “star system” will die, paving the way for a collaborative environment without special interests.  Some policy changes that I would suggest:

  • Penn State should only accept donations to an annual fund that will reduce student tuition and fees.   Penn State will no longer accept donations designated for football and other athletic programs, buildings, endowments or funds with donor restrictions as to use.  Donors will have the opportunity to invest in Penn State students
  • Penn State should adopt a new compensation plan, insuring fair compensation and benefits for all employees of the State of Pennsylvania system.  No employee should make more than the governor of Pennsylvania.  His 2010 salary was $174, 914.  Form 990 lists ten employees higher than the governors, including Joe Paterno at $1,038,000.

Joe Paterno was a folk hero for me and I am sad that he chose power and money over values.  Could this tragedy have been prevented if Penn State had stuck to its values and put students first?  My answer is yes.  If “improve[ing] the well being and health of individuals” defined Penn State instead of football, behavior that hurt students could not have been tolerated at any level.

What does this have to do with student loans?  Follow the money.  We live in a systems world.  Students have borne the cost of unintended consequences of Penn State’s policies for far too long.

Do the Penn State Trustees have the courage to change the system?