Every university has one: the athlete major, which for various reasons—usually close ties among instructors, tutors, and the athletics department, and occasionally a reputation for easy or downright nonexistent coursework—is disproportionately packed with athletes. At Auburn, it’s public administration, where more than half of the students play for the Tigers, including a full third of the football team. So when Auburn administrators and faculty members tried to eliminate public administration as a major, the athletics office stepped in—checkbook in hand—to make sure that didn’t happen.
The Wall Street Journal has examined emails and internal documents showing just how hard athletics went to bat for a major which a panel found does not “contribute a great deal to the Department’s education mission.”
In 2012, provost Timothy Boosinger sent a memo supporting the panel’s recommendation to suspend or eliminate public administration as a major. The political science faculty voted 13-0 to do away with it, then Auburn’s academic program review committee voted 10-1 to place it on inactive status. This did not sit well with the athletics department.
In the fall semester of 2013, more than half of the roughly 100 students majoring in public administration were athletes, records show, including nearly all of the top stars on the Auburn football team, which would win the Southeastern Conference title and play in the national-championship game. “If the public administration program is eliminated, the [graduation success rate] numbers for our student-athletes will likely decline,” a December 2012 internal athletic department memo said.
The month after the final vote to eliminate public administration, athletic director Jay Jacobs and associate AD for academics Gary Waters met with Boosinger. In that meeting, they lobbied to preserve public administration, and offered money from the athletics budget to pay public administration professors and staff.
Boosinger was apparently swayed. Two months later he agreed to postpone a decision on the major. By the start of football season he decided public administration would stay.
The news hasn’t set well with faculty members outside the program.
Michael Stern, the chairman of Auburn’s economics department and a former member of the faculty senate, said athletics is so powerful at Auburn that it operates like a “second university.”
In an interview this week, [the then-chairman of the poli sci department Gerry] Gryski said he was unaware that the athletic department had offered money to help keep the major open. “I’m searching for a word here,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s incomprehensible.”
Is it really incomprehensible? Graduation rates for big-time sports are already convenient fictions readily manipulated by programs and universities. It’s not so great a leap from that to an athletic department literally offering to put professors on its payroll.