In their words: FSU presidential candidates on athletics

Florida State’s presidential search committee has submitted three candidates moving forward for consideration. It’s not clear if the candidates will be ranked or if one name will be recommended to the Board of Trustees ahead of its May 24 meeting. During interviews on Friday and Saturday, the committee asked each of the candidates a question and asked for responses in regards to the role of athletics within the university. Below is the question and the responses from the candidates. Note that in the case of one candidate a follow-up question was asked.

FSU has a vibrant Division I athletics program that captures the attention of alumni, current students and the nation. Tell us about your experience working with Division I or other athletic programs. We are particularly interested in learning your approach to balancing the competing interest in advancing academic excellence and fostering new research against the needs of a thriving athletic program.

Robert Blouin, UNC executive Vice Chancellor and provost 

It’s an important topic. It’s a tough issue. When I was at the University of Kentucky, we had an athletic scandal in the basketball program. Very detrimental to the university. When I went to North Carolina, we had an athletic problem with our football program. Very detrimental to the university. And so it’s extremely important that we make sure that these programs are being run properly. It starts with the leadership, the President has to accept responsibility for all things that are going on within the athletics program. Although he may delegate that authority to the athletic director, make no mistake, it is the President’s burden to make sure that everything that is going on is being done in a manner that is consistent with our values. And so why do student-athletes come to the University? To get an education. Now there’s no question that we’re going to attract incredibly gifted student-athletes, and they may have opportunities prior to the completion of their degree to leave the university and to become gainfully employed. So we all need to just understand that is the reality of the of the world that we’re living in. And that we want to be as supportive as we can be. But we want to be clear that, at least in my opinion, I think athletics is important to a university. A university like this, a university like North Carolina, I think athletics has an important role. And it’s just not the revenue-generating sports like football and men’s basketball. But as I look at the Olympic sports, and incidentally, congratulations on your women’s soccer team, North Carolina, lost in the semi, we could have been in the finals together, that would have been an interesting thing for me personally. But I just want to congratulate you on being in the finals of the of the women’s soccer. And I’ve had a chance to interact with the coaches and with some of the players from our Olympic sports. And these are incredibly talented, gifted, young people. And so I don’t want to lose track of those student-athletes and the importance of making sure that they get a quality education throughout their time. Aand they work as hard as any other athletes within the system. But we have to make sure that if we’re going to be competitive, and we know what that means in major athletics, that we do it right. And I think we know what doing it right is today. Now not one of my roles as Provost is that I meet with the athletic director and his team, and we oversee all of the grades, the academic performance as well as the athletic achievement. And so we track this. We meet every other month, and we go sport by sport. So I have absolute control over all of that oversight with regards to whether or not the student athletes and, in particular, the individual sports, are performing to the standard that we have set for them. We have learned a lot over our own challenges and we have made corrections because of some of the missteps that took place somewhere around 10 years ago at Carolina. And I believe that those lessons learned have served me well and I believe have served our athletics program well. I do think that the balance is critical. And I think we cannot ignore the fact that it is very difficult to be a student-athlete, I have a tremendous amount of respect for these young men and women. It’s very hard to do what we ask them to do. And so I just want to make sure that we afford them the appropriate level of support in order to enable them to be successful.

How do you balance the research component to athletics, and the resources and those types of things? Almost competing?

Yeah, that’s an important consideration. Athletics, at least that at UNC is almost totally funded independently of the rest of the budget. So they have their budget, they were hit pretty hard by COVID financially. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was not the case here, particularly your big revenue-generating sports were not generating revenue and yet you still had a lot of expenditures. So because they have very few state dollars lined up to the athletics program, they’re not competing head for head for those dollars with, say, faculty resources. Now and buildings and fields and those things, I know that in the eyes of many faculty, they believe that is sometimes taking resources away from the core mission of the university. But at least at UNC, I can say with candor, that it’s not. Where it could compete is that we have development, and certainly a lot of our alumni and donors want to give to athletics over maybe the academic side of the aisle. They have some incentives to do that, either for tickets or puts them on a queue for points for tickets or whatever. But I think that’s where having a really good head of development comes in, trying to make sure that we align donor-directed interests to need. And sometimes it’s appropriate to direct donor interest in need to the athletics program, and other times it would be important to direct donor intent to the academic side of the aisle. We’ve done a very, I think, a pretty good job of both and because of that, I think both have flourished.

Richard McCullough, Harvard Vice Provost for Research

Thank you for the question. Well, first of all, I’m a huge sports fan to start off with. I’m already excited about the possibility of the women’s soccer team winning the national championship here. I’m already starting to be invested in what’s going on, the rise in the basketball team, I watched them in the Sweet 16. I was hoping they would make a few more threes and free throws, and then they could be in the Elite Eight. So the program is really rising. I see the momentum in the baseball team, women’s softball is great. And, of course, storied tradition of the football team, wanting to get back to the national championship is going to be critical. I hear you have, hopefully we have, a new offensive lineman come from Notre Dame. So maybe that will help shore things up a bit. But I think there’s two points to make here. And that is that it’s back to FSU has this pride. And this pride makes athletics a precious resource for the university. And one of the things that’s really important about promoting student athletes is the success of the student athletes are critical to the university. And I’ll tell you why. I don’t know how many people think about this: Student-athletes are often natural leaders. They’re super competitive people. And they often become among the most successful alumni. And we see this over and over. Harvard and other universities I have been involved with, admissions loves really driven athletes, good student-athletes. And if you look around at the board, you’ll see it’s peppered with very successful former student-athletes that are very successful. So I think that’s really important. These are the exact students that you want at the university. Not all of them. But you definitely want some folks that are really driven that way. So I think is really important. The other thing to bring up is that athletic program, you need to provide leadership, you need to be involved, you need to be engaged, you need to be working with your athletic directors in the same way you might work with your deans. Coaches (are) like department heads. You got to be involved, know what’s going on, you can’t just ignore them and hope everything’s going to be OK. And make sure things are sort of going in the way of the tradition of FSU, where the balance between academics and success going forward. I think the university has done a great job at that. And I will be supporting that going forward for sure. Absolutely.

Giovanni Piedimonte, Tulane VP for Research

I have two qualities that nobody else has, one is that I’m an MD, among the finalists. Second one, I was a professional football player. Not this football. Actually, they were paying me to play soccer. And, you know, I think it’s important you understand about sport. Working with the leadership at the University of Miami and West Virginia University, I was in contact with very, very large programs, and I realize how they can be the backbone. Also, financially. I remember one year I think Donna Shalala was the president and the Miami didn’t go to the to the finals. And basically we had to get to cut the budget for all the other sports. So I realized how important that is financially. West Virginia University, I realized that it is a religion. The Mountaineers, right next to the Coliseum, the football field, there is a huge area that is always empty, except around the time of the games, when it gets flooded by 30,000 people coming from everywhere. They drive in just for that. Frankly it was a surprise to me. But I learned how deep is the impact. I think it is an essential part of education. And I think that if you raise the bar of excellence in an institution, you raise it in academic and you raise it also in the sports activities. For the rest, you’re too intelligent for this, I never coached a professional football team nor a college football team. But again I truly believe that the No. 1 job and quality of a leader is to know what you don’t know. And so I think that what really the next president should do is to be able to put together the best possible team of experts to run athletics and continue an area that is essential. Because a lot of kids come in for that. So it’s an essential part of, frankly, when I was in Miami, those were the golden years of the Seminoles and usually they would kick the hell out of University of Miami. Sometime we would win though. So I completely realized that is an essential part of and I think that a president will pay a lot of attention to this. But I don’t think you’re going to find a wonderful expert in football that also knows about molecular biology and biomedical research and artificial intelligence. So you have to pick and choose and frankly that is going to define FSU for the future.