SFU to join NCAA -- is that a good thing?

College sports earn U.S. universities a lot of money, but arguably distort their mission

A couple of years ago I interview Dr. Carl Wieman, the American Nobel laureaute in physics who moved to the University of British Columbia to set up the Carl Wieman Science Education Initative, a project to improve the quality of undergraduate science teaching at UBC and across North America. Wieman’s interest is in figuring out how to improve teaching ad learning at universities. When we spoke, he surprised me by pointing to U.S. college sports as an obstacle to that mission. Last week, Simon Fraser University announced that it had become the first Canadian university to be admitted to the main U.S. college sports body, the NCAA. As for UBC — the other Canadian university that was seen as a prime candidate for NCAA membership — it recently announced that it is putting its expression of interest on hold for a year.

When I asked Wieman why he chose to come to UBC — he was previously at the University of Colorado, and as Nobel laureate could have landed a position and received funding at any major U.S. university — he mentioned a couple of factors. But the one that surprised me involved the way that for-profit sports are, in his view, distorting the mission of the U.S. university:

Wieman:… One feature I often point out is [UBC’s] football coach gets paid like an assistant professor, not, like, 10 times the university president. People just don’t realize that college athletics at public universities [in the U.S.] has become so dominant that the governing boards, the presidents, are thinking about the success of the football team first and undergraduate education second.
Q: I hadn’t thought about the fact that college sports might have played into your decision.
A It’s really so crazy. You go to a U.S. university and you look at what fraction of the governing board time is spent on athletic stuff as opposed to the rest of the university and, you know, it might be 50 per cent.
Q: And the NCAA recently opened its doors to non-American schools. Some Canadian universities are thinking about joining.
A: And UBC is one of them. I screamed when I found out!