Survey of presidents reveals disconnect

It is as reliable a finding as there is in political polling -- voters believe Congress is a mess but they like the representative in their district. That conventional wisdom came to mind Thursday when Inside Higher Education released a survey of 1,002 chief executive officers of universities across the nation.

In short, three out of four Division I presidents (122 of whom were among the respondents) believe that their colleagues as a group are not in control of intercollegiate athletics. But two-thirds of them believe that the scandals that rocked the NCAA in 2011 -- from Ohio State to Penn State to Miami to North Carolina -- could not happen on their campus.

Seven out of 10 Division I presidents believe that “colleges and universities spend way too much on their intercollegiate programs.” But only 34.2 percent of them believe that their own institution spends way too much.

In the early 1990s, with great fanfare, university presidents seized control of the NCAA and instituted reforms that put them in greater command of their athletic departments. Two decades later, the great majority of them believe that their colleagues have failed.

The questions in the survey are black and white statements. Running a college is the real world, where life is more complicated. Presidents understand that running an athletic department under NCAA rules can’t be summarized in thumbs-up, thumbs-down language. But the disconnect between what presidents think is going on everywhere and what they see on their own campus means that change -- significant change -- is going to come with great difficulty.

In fact, significant change may not exist, which brings up the most dispiriting finding of the survey. When presented with the statement, “The NCAA's reform proposals for college athletics are likely to achieve meaningful success,” 68 percent of the Division I presidents who said they approved the reforms disagreed.

If the presidents think that their fixes aren’t going to fix anything, aren’t they wasting everyone’s time?