Michael F. Adams, a longtime NCAA leader, spoke with The Chronicle about the need for tougher admissions requirements for elite athletes and for strong deterrents to cheating to ensure the legitimacy of big-time college sports.
"The message has to be sent … that the cost of cheating in the NCAA is not worth it," said Mr. Adams, the chancellor of Pepperdine University and a member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I Committee on Infractions. But until coaches internalize that message, he said, colleges may see more cases of academic fraud.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Mr. Adams, a former president of the University of Georgia, addressed the increasing prevalence of academic misconduct, how the NCAA could improve its effectiveness as an organization, and the use of athlete boycotts as a mechanism for effecting change.
BRAD WOLVERTON: Hello. We're here today with Dr. Michael Adams from Pepperdine University. And he's a chancellor who's been in that seat for about six months. Before that, he spent about 15 years at the University of Georgia at the helm of a school that was one of the most powerful of the Big Five conferences in sports. So today, we're mostly going to talk sports, Dr. Adams, as you figured.
MICHAEL ADAMS: Well, it's hard to hide, as they say. But I don't try to. I've been involved in the NCAA. I'm an NCAA believer. I don't think they're perfect, but if we didn't have it, we'd have to create it. So I'm always happy to talk about it.
About This Series
The Chronicle’s On Leadership video series explores various aspects of campus leadership with movers and shakers across academe. The series is hosted by Chronicle editors and reporters. Visit our complete collection of interviews.
BRAD WOLVERTON: Well, when you started at Georgia, college sports was already big business. It became way bigger when you were there — $3-billion conference-network deal with ESPN. They started their own channel. When you think about the shift in public opinion for college sports, how has that changed, and should people in higher education really be concerned about that?
MICHAEL ADAMS: Well, I think they should be concerned about it because, ultimately, college sports is paid for by the public. It's one of the reasons I took the position I took in '08 in regard to the playoff. I think it's gotten a lot more complicated, now both structurally with the whole college-football organization that runs the bowls, and the national championship we just went through. The NCAA, NAIA with the smaller colleges, frankly, the NCAA is providing a lot of football services — who's eligible, all of the services that determine rules in many cases. And none of the revenue. So I really think the NCAA deserves a lot of credit for what they have done to support football, largely because if you look at the power conferences today, as important as basketball is this season, as we're now in February and head toward March Madness, it's ultimately football that's the dividing line between the haves and have-nots.
BRAD WOLVERTON: Well, the NCAA may support football, but doesn't see any of that revenue from the college-football playoffs. How do you see it in the future? Do you see those bigger schools of 65 breaking off even more, or have they already effectively done that and they just sort of need an association like the NCAA as a backup anyway?
MICHAEL ADAMS: I think they need the NCAA to start with, and I also think they need the non-football-playing schools. We could talk a long time, for instance, about even the tension in each of the Big Five conferences without getting into naming schools or whatever. They're always there. The Georgias and Floridas and Alabamas in the SEC, but there are also a lot of schools not in the SEC that don't have that resource base. You've got the same situation in the Big 12 or the ACC, Big Ten, which is my home education. So, yeah, I think they're going to increasingly be drawn further and further from the other 3,400 schools, and that creates tension for everybody. But don't lose sight of the tension that may exist within the group of 65 as well.
BRAD WOLVERTON: You've led and been on lots of powerful NCAA committees, currently serving on the Committee on Infractions. What do you see as the major challenges facing the NCAA, and how do you think it could improve its effectiveness as an organization?
MICHAEL ADAMS: Well, from an Infractions Committee standpoint, I think it's very simple. And that's to make it where it's not beneficial to cheat. There are some coaches, I won't use any names, and we've seen examples lately, where I think they figured that bending the rules academically, that the penalties or the potential penalties, were worth the chance. And I think the NCAA and the Infractions Committee have to send a very strong message in that regard. That's where I also think the public comes in. I think we have to maintain the legitimacy of the academic process, and the belief of the public. I have felt for years that the front-end requirements academically are still too weak, with all due respect to my friend Walt Harrison, who has led the academic-reform movement and done a masterful job. I'd still like to see it ratcheted up a little bit, and I'd like to ensure it to the public that the people that are playing on Saturday afternoons are real students Monday through Friday.
BRAD WOLVERTON: So you've seen this rash of cases involving academic misconduct recently. You had Syracuse, you've got UNC under investigation. Not to comment on anyone in particular, but what do you think has contributed to that? Some people say it's actually the tougher standards on the front end.
MICHAEL ADAMS: Well, those people and I would disagree. I think there are two things that are compelling to me. When I was chair of the executive committee of the NCAA in some of the last years of the late Myles Brand, who was a very close friend of mine, we put a lot of money into enforcement. I think that was a smart thing. So I think, on one hand, some of the cases that are coming forward now are because the NCAA is doing a better job investigation-wise and sort of ferreting out what's going on. And then secondly, I think there are some coaches out there unfortunately — I've met some of them — who've decided that their way to success was to cheat. And I think without having deep animus toward them, which is sometimes hard, I do think the message has to be sent to them that the cost of cheating in the NCAA is not worth it. And I think until that messages is internalized, we may have some more cases like this.
BRAD WOLVERTON: Where do you see enforcement in the next 10 years, of people who've talked about outsourcing the system, where do you see it going?
MICHAEL ADAMS: Well, I'm not for outsourcing, let me say that on the front end. I think there are certain subtleties and knowledge bases that one picks up in the business along the way. I've heard: Let's create a panel of former federal judges or whatever, and I have great respect for the federal judiciary, but they live in a different milieu. In a different world. And I think the NCAA enforcement staff under Jon Duncan is much better than it's been for a while, maybe the best it's ever been. Unfortunately, you're always hiring a lot of bright, young, underpaid attorneys to sometimes go up against some of the most high-powered ones in the nation that these institutions seemed to align with. So that creates a dichotomy, but I still think like the committees that I've served on. We've got a college former AD or two sitting there. We've got a former coach or two sitting there. We've got a couple of former presidents sitting there. There are certain knowledge bases that one develops over a lifetime. I've been doing this for 40 years. That gives you some insight into what's really going on, that I think it's better handled in-house than by some outside group.
BRAD WOLVERTON: Finally, Dr. Adams, I had to ask you about the notion of athlete boycotts as a mechanism for effecting change. As someone who's in a leadership position and who's been in a major research institution in the Power Five and who's close with somebody who was I think a provost at Missouri, was a former dean at UGA, what do you see? As there are these students feeling out their ability to effect change, what do you think of athlete boycotts?
MICHAEL ADAMS: Well, I don't want to be critical of anybody by name. I think the students are certainly within their rights. Let me say that, if the student team of any type wants to boycott, then so be it. We've all dealt with it. I think when the presidents fold as quickly as some presidents have folded, I think we lose balance. And I think this whole system is built on some sense of mutual respect and balance. I think those leading the institutions, representing boards or faculties, they have rights as well. And one of the roles of a college president or chancellor is to balance all of those rights. So I don't think very much usually gets solved through boycotts. I think we're better off to talk to one another, lay alternatives on the table, and see if we can't find mutual solutions.
BRAD WOLVERTON: Dr. Adams, thanks so much for joining us.
MICHAEL ADAMS: It's always good to be with you. Nice to see you.