Gordon Gee Endorses Splintering of NCAA’s Top Level

Less than a week after college-sports leaders agreed on a preliminary plan to give the wealthiest NCAA conferences more autonomy while keeping Division I intact, E. Gordon Gee threw his support behind a different idea, suggesting that the 60 or so most-powerful athletics departments should form their own group.

Mr. Gee, president of West Virginia University, who has spent his career entrenched in big-time sports, said in an interview with The Chronicle that he would back a plan to create a fourth NCAA division or “leave the NCAA altogether.” And he suggested that Mark Emmert, the association’s leader, whose work he has long admired, had lost his footing.

Mr. Gee wouldn’t say whether he favored a fourth division or a breakaway. But he said that leaving the NCAA would give the wealthiest institutions the chance to “really reinvent the whole nature of the governance structure.”

Neither of those ideas was on the table at last week’s NCAA convention, where leaders across Division I showed support for keeping all 350 or so colleges under the same umbrella. The group also endorsed a proposal that would let the wealthiest five leagues provide more financial benefits to athletes and make rules more favorable to their interests. (Mr. Gee was not in attendance.)

But there are big questions to resolve about autonomy, including how much more power the elite conferences would have, and when they would get to use it—differences that could lead to an eventual splintering.

Mr. Gee, who stepped down last year as president of Ohio State University after making comments that criticized Roman Catholics and Southeastern Conference institutions, has been a leader in efforts to improve higher education nationally. Most recently, he led the American Council on Education’s work on the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, which sought to improve retention and attainment at thousands of institutions.

Through that work, he said, he saw the challenge of grouping very different types of colleges together.

“There’s so many varied interests,” he told The Chronicle. “It’s not that they shouldn’t be in competition, but frankly, when they’re all under the same tent, they pummel each other to death—whereas when you have some segregation with connectivity, you can have a much more powerful stringed organization.”

Mr. Gee, who worked with Mr. Emmert at the University of Colorado in the mid-1980s, considers the NCAA leader a close friend. Mr. Gee was one of more than 50 college chiefs to attend a 2011 NCAA summit at which Mr. Emmert attempted to gather support for an aggressive set of changes.

Among other things, Mr. Emmert helped push through a controversial $2,000 expense allowance for Division I players. That change was rolled back by institutions that don’t have budgets like those at Ohio State or West Virginia.

Mr. Emmert’s failure to appeal to powerful athletics officials may have made it more difficult to effect true change in an entrenched bureaucracy, Mr. Gee suggested. And the NCAA leader has not been well served by an exodus of talent from the association.

“He was a very brilliant guy initially in some of the things he tried to do,” Mr. Gee said. “But if you’re going to have a very aggressive change agenda, you’ve got to have foot soldiers who really agree with you.”

Last year, as Mr. Emmert faced criticism, Mr. Gee advised him to “stay the course.”

“It’s a very fragile time right now for college athletics,” Mr. Gee said at the time. “Mark is reaping the reward of being very aggressive, and also the whirlwind of being very aggressive.”

On Thursday his words were more measured: “My view is that consultation and listening right now is very, very important.”

That certainly seems to be Mr. Emmert’s approach. At last week’s convention, he mostly sat quietly while a group of presidents led discussions about the pros and cons of change.

He made the same impression last fall, during meetings of the Division I Board of Directors and a presidential-advisory group, says one campus leader who attended.

“He was obviously trying to lay low and let the whole process play out,” said this person. “He came in heavy and recognizes the need to pull back.”

In an email, an NCAA spokesman said that conversations at last week’s convention underscored its member colleges’ desire to keep Division I together. And the NCAA’s executive committee, which oversees Mr. Emmert’s performance, continues to support his work.

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