Few topics elicit more heated discussion among University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty leaders than the school's athletic department.

And to a certain degree, says David McDonald, that's understandable.

"A number of faculty, and this has gone on for 110 years, have wondered what big-time athletics are doing on a college campus," says McDonald, who chairs UW-Madison's history department. "I think a big part of the tension today is the apparent discrepancies in resources. Even though the athletic department is self-supporting, we read the salaries these coaches are making in the big sports and see the money being spent over at Camp Randall, and some feel a certain amount of resentment."

Although the athletic department is mostly a self-sustaining entity - thanks in large part to ticket sales, gift funds from boosters and distributions in shared revenues from the Big Ten Conference - its $83 million operating budget nonetheless is an eye-opener.

"My unit is down 15 to 20 percent in faculty appointments over the same period the football coach's salary has gone from $700,000 to $1.3 million," McDonald says of the three years since 2006 when Bret Bielema took over on the sidelines from Barry Alvarez. "As someone who served on the Athletic Board and in the athletic department, I know why that is. But if you look at it from the perspective of some of my colleagues, you can maybe understand why this is a source of concern."

The latest chapter in this contentious debate is just starting to be written. At the October meeting of the UW-Madison Faculty Senate, which oversees student academics and faculty personnel matters, the University Committee -- the executive committee of the Faculty Senate -- announced it had formed a seven-person ad hoc committee composed of faculty members to review the Athletic Board and determine whether it is fulfilling its oversight duties of the athletic department.

Murray Clayton, a plant pathology professor who was tabbed as committee chair, says the panel will review the roles and responsibilities of the Athletic Board as outlined in the campus' Faculty Policies and Procedures, which provide the framework for matters of shared governance on the UW-Madison campus. "We'll be gathering information and looking into whether the board is doing what it is supposed to be doing," says Clayton. "We'll start by doing a lot of fact-finding and go from there."

The ad hoc committee is scheduled to meet for the first time on Wednesday, Oct. 28. Bill Tracy, chair of the University Committee, is hoping Clayton's group can submit a written report to the UC by the end of December. Tracy hopes the University Committee can then report back to the Faculty Senate on this topic during the spring semester.

Walter Dickey, an associate dean with the Law School and chair of the Athletic Board, declined to comment specifically on the formation of the ad hoc committee. But he says he looks forward to its report and to working with the group and providing any information it needs. "I believe the board feels this way too," he adds.

Current tension between UW faculty leaders and the athletic department can be traced to July 2005 when Alvarez - then filling the dual role of athletic director and head football coach - named Bielema his successor on the sidelines without following proper hiring protocol.

Not only do university regulations call for such a vacancy to be posted for two weeks before the position can be filled, but Faculty Policies and Procedures state that personnel decisions involving UW coaches must get Athletic Board approval. But Bruce Jones, a UW-Madison professor of agricultural economics and chair of the Athletic Board at the time, says he didn't find out about Bielema being named Alvarez's successor until two hours before a press conference to announce the big news. Jones was replaced as chair of the Athletic Board two months later.

Some faculty senators were also miffed with the Athletic Board's lack of input regarding the university's contract with the Big Ten Network in 2007, and others were irritated the next spring when Alvarez announced embattled women's basketball coach Lisa Stone would have her contract renewed even though the board had never debated the topic. Last fall, the question of whether the Athletic Board provided a true check on the operations of the athletic department was brought to light in a very public way when history professor Jeremi Suri made it known he had resigned his position on the board because it had become a rubber stamp for the desires of the athletic department.

And things really came to a head earlier this year when the Athletic Board unanimously endorsed a self-study report on the "Role of the Athletic Board." This document - which was a required component of the NCAA re-accreditation process the athletic department recently wrapped up - concluded that the board is merely an advisory committee that has little true power when it comes to hiring, firing or evaluating the performance of a coach. These decisions, the report stated, mostly lie in the hands of the chancellor and athletic director.

When this report was presented to the UW Faculty Senate for review in April, many members expressed serious concerns, with Jones and others arguing that Faculty Policies and Procedures say these key personnel decisions must be approved by the Athletic Board.

The wording in Faculty Policies and Procedures, however, is somewhat vague: "The Athletic Board exercises the authority of the faculty over intercollegiate athletics, subject to the review, direction and control of the Faculty Senate and of the faculty itself. The Athletic Board has the responsibility and authority to take all action appropriate to the supervision of the intercollegiate athletic program."

At its May 4 meeting, not only did the Faculty Senate reject the Athletic Board's self-study report, but the University Committee introduced a document that clarified the Athletic Board's role. Most notably, the University Committee struck down the Athletic Board's contention that head coaches are appointed by the chancellor, on the recommendation of the athletic director. The revised document states "head coaches are appointed by the chancellor on the recommendation of the Athletic Board." Faculty senators unanimously approved this revision.

Faculty senators also directed the University Committee to appoint an ad hoc committee to review the board and its conduct.

"The key question is, 'How did the Athletic Board get to where they did on its self-report?" says Jones, who serves as a faculty senator. "Let's get clarifications. How was it you came to these conclusions that were, apparently, endorsed unanimously by the board?"

Dale Bjorling, who recently was appointed by the University Committee to a second four-year term on the Athletic Board, says he has no problem with the ad hoc committee being formed.

"If they think there are real problems, they should be looked into," says Bjorling, who chairs the department of surgical sciences in the School of Veterinary Medicine. What Bjorling finds ironic is that Jones is pushing for an investigation in 2009. Bjorling wonders why Jones didn't make a stand in 2005 when he was chair of the Athletic Board and Alvarez appeared to overstep his bounds by naming Bielema his successor.

"It's a bit odd, if you will, the timing of this," says Bjorling.

Perhaps no one on the UW-Madison campus can offer better insight into this debate than McDonald.

Not only does the professor of Russian history chair an academic department with more than 40 faculty members, but he has extensive experience working with the athletic department and Athletic Board.

Starting in 1994, he began two four-year terms on the Athletic Board, including chairing the body in 2000-01. In April of 2001, he was appointed special assistant to the chancellor for athletics after the NCAA sanctioned the UW because 157 of its athletes had received unadvertised discounts from the Shoe Box in Black Earth. In that capacity, McDonald had an office in Camp Randall Stadium across the hall from then-UW athletic director Pat Richter. McDonald primarily oversaw compliance and academic issues. He worked in that role until September of 2004, when he returned to the history department full-time.

McDonald scoffs at the idea that faculty on campus don't have enough input when it comes to athletic department operations. He says that UW-Madison's Athletic Board "exercises more real authority than any of its counterparts in the country. That's partly out of practice, partly due to circumstances related to (the athletic department's) financial crisis in the late '80s and early '90s, and partly due to the tradition of faculty governance on this campus."

Of the current spat between campus faculty and athletics, McDonald notes: "It seems like people are concerned about the athletic department and its actions, but are looking at the Athletic Board." To McDonald, this makes little sense. If faculty senators have true concerns about the Athletic Board, he believes it would make more sense to look at how the University Committee appoints its Athletic Board members.

As for what role the UW faculty should play in overseeing athletics, McDonald believes faculty on the Athletic Board should focus most of their energy on dealing with issues that directly affect the academic side of student-athletes - establishing and implementing academic and other eligibility standards, and overseeing systems for providing student-athletes with academic services.

He adds that he "always looked at the Athletic Board as the first instance of accountability" when it came to compliance with rules and regulations of the NCAA and Big Ten.

But when it comes to having a say in such issues as the hiring, firing and evaluation of coaches, McDonald believes - as the Athletic Board's self-report indicated - board members should serve in more of an advisory capacity. And he, too, uses Faculty Policies and Procedures to back up his argument.

He says the policies state that the Athletic Board is responsible for and authorized to "take all action appropriate to the supervision of the intercollegiate athletic program." The key word, he adds, is "supervision."

"There is a difference between supervision and actual policy-making and decision-making," he says.

McDonald believes state statutes and UW System rules put those ultimate decision-making powers in the hands of "the athletic director, the chancellor and the regents, along a delegated line of authority."

So while McDonald says it's important that the Athletic Board be kept aware of all that is going on within the athletic department, he doesn't think it should be demanding a final say in coaching hires or TV contracts.

"Is that really what you want?" he says. "I don't know anything about TV contracts. We pay people in the chancellor's office and athletic department to make these decisions."

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