Mike Fitts, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, becomes president of Tulane University on Tuesday. Via e-mail, he answered these questions from Advocate contributor Scott Kushner about his views on athletics at his new school:
Tulane has recently undergone a face-lift to many of its athletic facilities, thanks to a large investment in the physical plans. With that step seemingly complete and the results on the field largely unchanged, what is the next priority the athletic department must attack to be successful on a conference and national level?
Yulman Stadium will be a centerpiece of the athletics complex for years to come. In his short tenure at Tulane, (coach Curtis Johnson) has demonstrated that he has the football program on the right trajectory. Our basketball, volleyball and baseball facilities are first-rate and provide the right training and competitive environment for our student-athletes. Our baseball program has a new coach, and I am confident that it will return to its winning ways starting next year. Our new conference will provide a stern test for us but, at the same time, it will be a measuring stick as we plan for the coming years.
At a school that is nationally competitive in every other facet of its operation, it is seen by many to be an odd juxtaposition that the athletic department has lagged behind the competition for most of the past 15 years — both financially and in terms of on-field success. It has caused people to question its priority as a place inside the school. What do you see as the function of the athletic department, and how critical is it for it to achieve the levels of excellence the rest of the university has attained?
There is no question about the place of the athletics department within the university. That issue was resolved more than a decade ago, and Tulane has demonstrated its commitment to its student-athletes and its fans in three ways:
1. Upgrading, and continuing to upgrade, every on-campus facility dedicated to athletics, including constructing a beautiful, $75 million stadium.
2. Providing, on an annual basis, increased funding for the athletics department, including highly competitive salaries for the coaching staffs.
3. Becoming a member of the American Athletic Conference, which will provide the Green Wave with more media opportunities, more financial opportunities and more opportunities to compete at an elevated level.
In summary, our plan for athletics is the same as it is for the rest of the university: keep getting better in all measurable ways.
As someone relatively new the world of Division I college athletics, is there a process you have in mind for educating yourself about the various challenges it presents? Are you planning to lean a bit on the current administration and board in the early months, or do you plan to address it immediately upon arrival?
I am relatively new to the world of Division I athletics from a leadership perspective. However, I am not new as a sports fan.
Additionally, intercollegiate athletics, with its legal, financial and regulatory issues, has a huge impact on higher education, and that is an enterprise with which I am very familiar.
From talking to other university presidents, including (departing president) Scott Cowen, who is acknowledged as one of the leading authorities on intercollegiate athletics, I know it is a complex, multifaceted issue. I will be relying on those colleagues, plus (athletic director) Rick Dickson and (chief operating officer) Barbara Burke, and members of the board, to become more knowledgeable on the issues.
The financial magnitude of college athletics for major powers seems to have reached a point of critical mass, and the question about providing players full cost of tuition has been addressed by many leagues — including American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco, who said the league expects to adopt those measures if allowed by the NCAA. How do you feel about the issue, and is there a limit on what Tulane can do, compared to schools with larger athletic revenues?
Financial issues have a monumental effect on intercollegiate athletics, and it is an area that I will be studying further and in great detail. As a member of the American, Tulane has agreed to live by the rules and regulations of the conference, and we will honor that commitment.
Rick Dickson has been the athletic director since 2000. What are your thoughts about his long-term view for the department?
The athletic department has made significant progress in several areas since Hurricane Katrina. As with all parts of the university, we will continue to review the department’s long-term plans and goals as part of our ongoing strategic planning process.
Scott Cowen was known for dyeing his hair green for homecoming, etc. Do you plan to do the same?
I guess you will have to come to the games to find out.