Prof. Jeremi Suri was recently named one of America's brightest young minds by the Smithsonian Institute and has recently published Henry Kissinger and the American Century with Harvard University Press. He also sits on the UW-Madison Athletic Board, where he has become a voice of dissent.
At a board meeting last Friday, Suri confronted UW Law Prof. Walter Dickey, chairman of the board, over a letter Dickey signed along with athletic director Barry Alvarez and Chancellor John Wiley which appeared to stake out the university's position on the network and its bargaining stalemate with cable providers.
This is a partial transcript of an telephone discussion I had with Suri this Monday. It accompanies the Sports column in the December 14 issue of Isthmus titled "Whose athletic department is it?"
The Daily Page: The athletic board meeting last Friday was pretty contentious. I haven't been to one in years, is this what happens these days?
Suri: There's a strong desire from some people to have the meeting be about nothing. It's actually gotten more contentious because a few of us feel like we've been banging our heads on the wall, pushing harder than we should to get these issues discussed. Not that we're succeeding. All we're doing now is getting discussion of whether we should discuss these issues.
My assumption has been that a strong athletic department leads to better visibility for the university which should lead to better fundraising opportunities for the academic departments. But some, including Political Science Professor Donald Downs, indicate that's not the way it has worked out. He says his department is "hurting" and others are, too.
There's no doubt that a good athletic program leads to more visibility for the university. My concern, and I think the concern of a number of faculty, is that what's happening is the athletic department is operating as a separate business and it's not contributing back to the university itself. Whether the public relations side means that by virtue of being in a bowl game we feel better about the university, there's probably something to that. But there's still such a deep separation and there's no one in the athletic department, and not too many people within the athletic board, who really want to see deeper interconnection [between the university and the athletic department].
What motivated you to begin serving on the athletic board?
I'm a sports fan and I'm someone interested, historically and professionally, in the way the university operates and this is an important part of the university. There's a lot of money there and it's also an important part of the way the university is seen and interacts with the public. My frustration, in part, is that no one seems to want to talk about those issues.
An article published about you recently quoted you as saying your work as a historian explores the interaction of ideas, personalities and institutions, which seems to make you uniquely qualified to serve on the athletic board at this time. Do you think the way those three elements interact with respect to the athletic department has changed over the last 10 to 20 years?
I don't think so, but I do think the athletic department has become more successful at what it does, raising money. And it's also becoming more problematic. When they were operating pretty much separately, it was a small problem because it was a small entity. But now when you've got this huge, more than $70 million budget that's operating pretty much on its own, has its own building plan to transform the campus, has its own television channel, it's own discipline policy. It's beginning to operate on a scale where it's independence threatens the operations of the university.
So what is your goal as a member of the board?
I'm a sports fan and I want a good athletic department, and I don't think anyone would actually put this much time into this if they weren't a proponent in that sense. But I think the best athletic department we can have is one that's actually integrated into the functions and aims of the university and I do think the athletic department should be giving back more to the university. I think we should think more seriously about what it means to have an athletic department on this scale and scope within the context of the university and within the context of our mission. To put it clearly and accurately, I think sometimes the athletic department forgets that it's only the University of Wisconsin Athletic Department because it is part of the University of Wisconsin. They often operate as if they're independent and only happen to be attached to the University of Wisconsin. They're nothing without us.
That's interesting because it's very clear when you walk around the new athletic department offices at the stadium that the word "university" is hard to find. Most of the signs say, simply, "Wisconsin Athletics."
There's never an effort to try and think about what is in the interest of the university. It's always presumed that whatever's in the interest of the athletic department is in the interest of the university. Whereas they want us to think about university stuff in terms of their interest. It's a one-way street that they want. That's really problematic in attitude. And then there's issues of oversight too. There's a sense in which any organization operating independently without too many hard questions being asked internally is an organization that's setting itself up to have a lot of trouble of its own, and that's not happening either.
The director of the athletic department -- I actually like Barry a lot as an individual -- but he's not someone who likes to have to answer tough questions. He likes to run the department like a football team. That works to some extent, but it also means you get blindsided and that has definitely happened with the Big Ten Network. No one was asking these hard questions. It didn't seem to me that it took a lot of brains to figure out that cable companies were going to resist this. They were unprepared for that.
At last week's board meeting, it seemed like members of the board were trying to make it clear that backing the Big Ten Network was Chancellor John Wiley's decision and they didn't appreciate being dragged into it.
That's an agreement that John Wiley and Barry Alvarez made with Walter Dickey's support, which is what I was upset about personally. I don't think it had to be that way. The athletic board could have resisted that. There's nothing I've seen in the charter of the university that says this is solely a chancellor-level decision. That's how it happened and it didn't have to be that way. It has enormous implications for the campus. It affects the way we're seen in the world and it becomes the face of the university and that's a university-wide issue, not just an athletic department issue. This has happened without any major discussion on campus.
So is there a strategic way you can move toward that happening, or can you just try to be the voice of dissent at the table?
You mean be the guy everyone hates on the board? [Laughs]
I think there are three things that could be done that would not be hard and would not be terribly disruptive to the continuing function of the athletic department. One, I think we need to have a board that is encouraged to ask tough questions and is brought into decision making by the leadership of the athletic department, where things are not kept isolated and secret and we're not told everything is about proprietary interest. It's like trying to get information from the CIA, which is an organization I study so I have some sensitivity to this. You can't discuss anything they're doing because everything is secret. We need to have more information sharing. We need to have a culture that encourages that. We need the athletic department to bring the faculty in, not to micromanage, but for this to be about common decision making and about information sharing. And that, I don't think, would take a lot, but it would take a change in attitude.
Second, I think on key issues of revenue and building and things like that, these discussions need to be university wide discussions. They shouldn't just happen within the athletic department or even within the athletic board. And third I think we need a chancellor who makes this point and doesn't just let the athletic department run on its own. So I think it's about action by the athletic board, action by the athletic department and action by the chancellor. And I think we need to talk about oversight. We don't want to say oversight, but it should be oversight.
So how does that happen? Do you bring proposals to the board?
I think some of it can be done through the board itself, but I think a lot of it has to be from the chancellor. I think it has to come from the top down, but also from the faculty themselves. I think the faculty, as a whole, has to start demanding something. We need a university committee that pushes for this more. I've talked to the university committee leadership about this and there's some sympathy there, but the problem is twofold. Faculty, first of all, who care about this don't have the time or don't want to put the time into this. Second, there's a lot of intimidation that goes on.
Do you get to a lot of games? Are you a Badger fan?
I take my kids to all the games, actually. We live a few blocks from the stadium so my kids have been to, I think, every home football game in the last two or three years. My kids are three and five and my son, Zach, has been going since he was less than one. We go a lot and I love going. My wife kind of likes it, not always, but I'm a big sports fan.
This is not about trying to kill sports, it's about trying to make an athletic department that's responsive to the needs of the university and is stronger in the long run. My experience studying organizations is that when they stop asking tough questions, they might be better off in the short run, but in the long run they get themselves into a lot of trouble. I sometimes think in my worst moments that the athletic department now is where the Pentagon was at the beginning of the Afghanistan war. It looks really good right now and you stop asking tough questions, then things just blow up.