News of Chancellor Carlos Santiago’s resignation reached me yesterday in the form of about 30 text messages in the middle of my Literature and Knowledge summer class. Eventually, I turned my phone off; it was too distracting to keep my head in the class while also fielding a ton of messages regarding Santiago’s departure for the Hispanic College Fund. After class, my discussions with multiple people from all over the university, inside athletics and out, elicited a common reaction: uncertainty.
That is a fair description of our situation. Without a chancellor, the person that is supposed to take over in his or her absence is the provost. Unfortunately, UWM just lost her provost, Rita Cheng, to the chancellorship at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, the main campus of SIU and Missouri Valley Conference stalwart. We’re also moving forward without a Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, who oversees all aspects of student life, part of which is athletics. We’re to the stage of finalists, which is now in flux because Santiago is leaving. That Vice Chancellor would be the direct boss of the Athletic Director, a position that is also vacant.
As it stands, four of the top 6 or 7 positions at the university, including 2 of the 3 most visible offices, are empty. If there were ever a time to describe our situation with the word uncertainty, now would be it.
I’m going to use a different word: opportunity.
For too long, the university’s administration and faculty have misunderstood the place that athletics should hold in the university. While they may tell you differently, the academic side of UWM as a whole views athletics as a money pit, a place to spend $10 million a year on nothing that benefits the school. They see it as unimportant, only existing to entertain a small segment of the student bodywithout benefit to them.
And that view is wrong. Athletics, at the collegiate level, is a tool. It’s a tool to boost support for the university, to raise money for projects outside the normal endowment level. It’s a tool to market the university to students nationwide, where the university can get its name in front of millions of prospective students, people who may spend out-of-state tuition or do their research at this university because of it.
Does the kid from California pick UWM because of the Milwaukee Panthers? Absolutely not, and that kid would be an idiot to do so. But that kid in California would have never heard about UWM if we didn’t have a basketball program to watch on TV. Think about the spike in enrollment after our Sweet 16 in 2005. Those are absolutely related.
Carlos Santiago, for all he did for UWM and continues to do until September 30th, never completely threw himself into supporting athletics. Two months ago, when athletics needed him to back them after the Journal-Sentinel’s damning article, he was nowhere to be found. But that’s just part of what the chancellor needs to do for athletics. His successor will need to fulfill more than just defense when the program comes under attack.
Understanding the place of athletics in the university, the new chancellor needs to change the culture of UWM, as it pertains to athletics. Support needs to be universal, not about attending the occasional basketball game.
The Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, the provost, needs help building something? Give Rob Jeter a call and see if he can help solicit a large donation from a donor. If that donor is a basketball fan, you have a better chance of getting that cash. If they’re not, they’ll at least recognize that the university feels their donation is important, showing that by sending the highest-paid employee for a chat.
To maximize the power and reach of the athletics program, the university needs to send support to its program. By making basketball (and eventually football) better puts the school on national TV more, and that drives up donor support and student applications. So how does the university make athletics better?
Scott Peak and Scott Gore run student housing and the union, respectively. To build the program up to the point it can be of maximum use to the university, athletics marketing needs to be able to get in front of students everywhere. The more students attend games, the more graduates stay basketball fans beyond cap and gown day, which brings more prospective donors to the university. So when marketing needs to get students to games, they need to turn to Peak and Gore.
Peak’s student housing puts up most of the freshmen class, meaning athletics can get at thousands of students that way. Gore’s Union is the busiest building in the state, with upwards of 20,000 people passing through its doors each day. That is a lot of eyes that can see advertising for athletics, but both entities charge the athletic department as if it were a student organization.
This is where the new chancellor comes in. This person has the power, as their boss, to mandate support that the athletic department needs to not only become a financially stable section of the school, but also become the positive force it is at many D-I schools.
The chancellor should be a ball hawk, propping up the goals of the athletics program in the university and in the community. He or she needs to go to Scott Peak, Scott Gore, and other people in the university and tell them that athletics is on a separate plane; if they need help, they get help without having to jump through all the hoops that the Women’s Resource Center or the Chess Club have to jump through.
The best institutions in the country understand that athletics can help academics. That’s why the academic faculty and administration at Duke, Ohio State, Xavier, and now Butler accept and support their athletics programs.
At UWM, we often hear from students that they don’t feel they’re at a “real” university. It’s not that we don’t have athletics, it’s that we don’t have spiritual support over the whole campus. And it’s not just in athletics; so many departments work completely separate from each other, so there is no unity between them. If athletics is given support from all ends of the campus, the program grows to the point where it becomes a great benefit for the academic side.
It’s not going to happen overnight, but it starts with a chancellor meeting with all departments and making them understand that athletics can be a huge boon as long as they put their support into it.