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The Vanderbilt Experiment
Mark Bechtel
September 22, 2003
In the face of NCAA scandals, one school eliminates its athletic department—and hopes to become a model for a system in need of reform
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September 22, 2003

The Vanderbilt Experiment

In the face of NCAA scandals, one school eliminates its athletic department—and hopes to become a model for a system in need of reform

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Last Friday, the day before Vanderbilt hosted Auburn on the football field, a group of Commodores fans were having lunch across the street from their campus when one assessed the SEC matchup: "They don't have a TD, we don't have an AD." The next day Auburn ended its touchdown drought, scoring six in a 45-7 win. Vanderbilt, however, remained without an athletic director—and will remain without one indefinitely because of chancellor Gordon Gee's Sept. 9 announcement that he was eliminating the position and folding the athletic department into his office's division of student life and university affairs.

The summer brought a string of college sports scandals, from the murder of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy to the suspension of Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett. School presidents wring their hands over the state of intercollegiate athletics, but Gee acted. He perceived athletic departments as islands, answering to no one, spending ridiculous amounts of money and flaunting the standards of academia—not to mention decent society. "We have engaged in this arms race in athletics, and we've also engaged in this culture of separation," says the frenetic, 59-year-old Gee. "Anything we can do to coddle athletes, to segregate and to protect them from the university in general and from the activities of the institution, we've done."

So he took away his department's autonomy—even though it was one of the cleanest in the country. According to the NCAA's most recent figures, Vanderbilt's football graduation rate of 91% is the third highest in the country. And not one of the school's 14 varsity programs has ever been on NCAA probation. "My house is a pretty nice house," says David Williams II, the vice chancellor for student life and university affairs. "But I paint it. I put a porch on it. Sometimes you do things to enhance what you're already doing. There was nothing broken, but we sat down and thought we could be even better."

While Commodores coaches now have to placate recruits who are being told by opposing coaches that Vanderbilt is deemphasizing intercollegiate athletics, Gee is quick to point out that's hardly the case. The budget isn't being slashed, and the synergy created by having the school run athletics should benefit them—especially in areas like marketing and fund-raising, which, the administration believes, the university does better than the athletic department.

Gee, who has also been president of Colorado, Ohio State and Brown, had another motive in addition to improving the quality of his program: to set an example. He's not so naive as to believe his move can be replicated everywhere—"If I tried this at Ohio State or Colorado, I'd probably be pumping gas in [my hometown of] Vernal, Utah," he says—but it's not unreasonable to suggest that other schools might benefit from taking steps to bridge the chasm between athletics and academia.

However, the reaction has been largely skeptical—especially among ADs. "It was handled inappropriately," says Bruce Van de Velde, athletic director at Iowa State, where since May five student-athletes have been arrested and the basketball coach resigned after being caught cavorting with coeds at a party. "If this is the kind of vision they have for their athletic program, I question whether they belong in the SEC."

That's something Gee's been hearing since he took control of the department. "There is no one more committed to Division I-A athletics and the SEC than me," he says. "As I told [football coach] Bobby Johnson, 'On Tuesday it was your problem. Now it's mine.' I'm very much on the line on this."

How many other presidents are willing to join him?