Athletics in transition

February 23, 2001

Nick Marinello

Come April, a site visitation team from the National Collegiate Athletic Association will visit Tulane as one of the final steps in an NCAA certification process begun a year ago. Each member of that team should have a keen understanding of how athletics operates at Tulane, thanks largely to a self-study that involved approximately 70 members of the university community, most of them from outside of athletics.

Despite the fact that the report offered unblinking scrutiny of the athletics department, particularly on matters of gender equity, athletics director Rick Dickson sees the results as beneficial to his student athletes, coaches and staff.

"In essence, we asked the university community to look at its athletics program and determine if it conformed to a set of NCAA operating principles related to governance; academic and fiscal integrity; and equity, welfare and sportsmanship," he says. "I am comfortable with the process. I think it's been a healthy one and, in my case, a beneficial one."

Dickson, who arrived at Tulane last spring, was "brought into the loop" in the middle of the process when he was appointed to the steering committee. "Rick Dickson arrived in mid-stream," says Dick Culbertson, associate professor of health systems management and chair of the certification steering committee.

"One of the good things coming out of this process was that it afforded the athletics department the chance to get in and address a number of policy issues that had not been previously addressed." Even while the self-study was taking place, Dickson was mobilizing his department in new directions.

"We did not have a policy and procedural manual, and now there's one in place," he says. More dramatic, perhaps, is the structural reorganization of the department. "We in essence had 16 [athletics] programs operating independently of each other," says Dickson. "These were programs that were largely underfunded. To improve their plight they had to act independently."

Under the reorganization, says Dickson, the athletics department no longer operates as a collection of disparate entities but as a homogenous unit. "Our object here is to run a Division 1A program as one entity. The essence here is to make it a department that treats all its student athletes with the same dignity and respect in a mutually beneficial atmosphere."

Dickson believes structural change can support a department's philosophy. He sees this change in operations will have a direct effect on gender equity issues, which were raised in the self-study and suggested that Tulane was not in strict compliance with Title IX guidelines. (Read the report at http://www2.tulane. edu/administration_reports.cfm).

"Before, we were sending out a message that there were different classes of programs," says Dickson. "I'm just as concerned about the success of women's tennis as I am of women's basketball or men's football. These are young people and each puts just as much into his or her sport and needs to be supported accordingly."

Dickson hopes the new philosophy of centralization will help stabilize funding for all his programs, and says that when the department was sending out 12 coaches to raise money for 16 programs, the message was missing the mark.

"We gave a splintered view of our programs and asked donors to choose between them," says Dickson. "We will now ask people to give unconditional gifts to the athletics program, and ask them to support the 300 athletes that walk in our building. Let me provide them all with the right training and services to be Division 1 athletes."

New philosophies notwithstanding, Culbertson says he has learned that athletics finances are a "challenging enterprise." It's tough, he says, to operate a high-level program in a non-bowl-championship conference such as Conference USA, where funding that trickles down to athletics departments is limited.

"It means," says Culbertson, "that you are constantly on the financial edge and you have to be very creative fiscally and programmatically to make Division 1 sports work here." Neither Dickson nor Culbertson will venture to say what the site visitation team will recommend after it leaves. There are three options: certification, conditional certification or no certification.

"I expect they will make some recommendations and suggestions," says Dickson, who has served on other certification teams.

"They'll want to see if the report accurately reflects the program. They'll also want to see if everyone, from the president on down, really gets it and understands what needs to be done. In that I think we're strong. I think President Cowen wants us to have a viable 1-A program. The fact that we have had longtime struggles just necessitates that we roll up our sleeves, develop our plans, and really begin the grinding process to bring ourselves up to those levels."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000