Athletic Futures: Maintain Status Quo

January 31, 2003

As it charts its course for the next decade and beyond, the athletics department should avoid greatly expanding or reducing its varsity program, according to a report to the trustees in December. Developed principally by senior associate director Chris Kennedy Ph.D. '79, the report says Duke can go in one of three directions in the future: undertake an expanded commitment that's required for Duke to finish each year in the top five in the Sears Cup competition (given to the nation's top collegiate athletics program); de-emphasize varsity athletics and compete at the NCAA Division III level; or maintain the current tiered structure.

Under its current "middle course" structure, the university sponsors some varsity teams that are perennially competitive on the national level (such as men's and women's basketball, tennis, and golf) and others (such as wrestling, swimming, men's track, and fencing) that do not offer scholarships but are competitive on a lower level. In 2001-02, Duke finished thirtieth overall in the Sears Cup standings and sixth among private universities.

The report suggests that for Duke to be competitive annually for the Sears Cup, the university would need to add more than seventy-five scholarships (at a cost of more than $2.8 million) and, "in all probability, increase operating budgets across the board. This would require a significant reallocation of existing university resources, which is not currently possible. In addition, the gap between athletic admits and 'regular' admits would widen with the increase in the number of scholarships offered."

The Division III option, which the report calls the "most radical of all" alternatives, would eliminate the approximately 235 athletic scholarships (a savings of about $8.6 million), reduce the number of coaches, and shorten athletic seasons. "At the same time, however, virtually all revenue from men's basketball ($8.7 million) and football ($5.8 million) would, of course, disappear," the report notes.

Duke's athletic history is a source of pride to alumni, students, and staff, and has been a productive rallying point for development and alumni officers, generating "incalculable" national and international publicity for the university. Duke also would find it-self with facilities grossly out of proportion to the needs of a Division III school, and that would represent a breach of trust with those donors whose contributions funded new or recently renovated facilities. "The problems and challenges that we currently face would have to be considerably more acute and intractable than they currently are for us to seriously consider this alternative," the report suggests.

Kennedy says the report represents the first comprehensive assessment of the athletics department in more than a decade. "We feel this report offers a convincing justification for maintaining the current structure of the department."

Even by maintaining the current system, the athletics department faces financial challenges, including spiraling scholarship costs, rising coaches' salaries, and the expense of maintaining and operating new facilities. To offset these increases, the report points to potential sources of revenue. "The single untapped resource that has the potential to generate significantly increased revenue is football. We are currently operating under a plan to rebuild the football program that, if it works, will return football to competitive stature within the ACC. The success of this plan (focused on improved recruiting, the retention of quality coaches, improvement of facilities, and adjusted admissions procedures) may provide some relief from our growing financial pressures."

The report adds: "The slight shift in admissions policy for football is...a one-time adjustment, the effects of which--both on the success of the football program and on the academic progress of student athletes--will be carefully monitored and evaluated."

To date, the report says, Duke has successfully sponsored an athletics program that is nationally competitive and does not compromise the institution's fundamental values and goals. "To maintain that balance, Duke must continue to adhere to three basic principles in the future:

  • Never compromise our commitment to the academic success and graduation of student athletes;
  • Never violate the autonomy of the director of admissions in the athletic admissions process and never compromise the fundamental admissions standard: that all admitted students must be capable of doing acceptable work and graduating from the university;
  • Never depart from principles of sound fiscal management."