Although two of Ohio State’s highest administrative officials are more likely academics than athletes, the men know a little bit about how a football reputation can influence an academic one.
For Joseph Steinmetz, executive vice president and provost, a diminished amount of football chatter is an indication OSU’s academic reputation is on the rise.
“Athletics help the university, they really do. They focus our alumni’s attentions on the university, and I noticed this when I go out and I talk to alumni from around the country,” Steinmetz said in an interview with The Lantern Oct. 8. “Not every conversation centers on our alumni around the sports cycle and that’s a shift in the four years that I’ve actually seen.”
Steinmetz, who came to OSU four years ago from the University of Kansas to serve as the vice provost and executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences before becoming provost July 1, said he’s had alumni tell him they feel their degrees are worth more now than when they graduated, which he takes as further proof OSU is on the right track.
Interim President Joseph Alutto, who assumed the presidency July 1 when former President E. Gordon Gee retired, said the high value alumni place on athletic success is imperative for the university’s next president to understand.
“What we look for as a president, we look for somebody who appreciates that, who embraces that, who understands that that’s one of the big advantages of being at Ohio State,” he said in an interview with The Lantern Sept. 23. “It’s not just that we’re big, but that there is this passion for us among our alums, with almost anyone who connects with us that recognizes that this a very special university.”
Gee supported OSU’s athletics programs, but on multiple occasions, his sports-related jokes went viral and he faced public criticism.
He made comments slighting Texas Christian University and other non-BCS schools in 2010 after TCU won the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin.
“I do know, having been both a Southeastern Conference president and a Big Ten president, that it’s like a murderer’s row every week for these schools. We do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor,” Gee told The Associated Press Nov. 24, 2010. Gee was also chancellor at Vanderbilt from 2000–07.
The Little Sisters of the Poor is an organization based in Toledo that aims to help the poor and elderly.
At a March 8, 2011, press conference to announce former OSU football coach Jim Tressel’s suspension related to the Tattoo-gate scandal, when asked about Tressel’s job security, Gee replied, “I just hope he doesn’t dismiss me.”
More than two years later, Gee announced his retirement June 4 after controversial remarks he made at a Dec. 5 OSU Athletic Conference meeting became public. A recording of Gee included him joking that “those damn Catholics” of Notre Dame can’t be trusted and that’s why the university was never invited into the Big Ten. He also said Notre Dame’s priests are “holy on Sunday, and they’re holy hell on the rest of the week.”
He also made statements about the academic integrity of the SEC conference. Gee said as a Big Ten president, it was his job is to make sure the conference is comprised of schools that value academics, which is why “you won’t see us adding Louisville,” a Big East school, or the University of Kentucky, an SEC school.
Alutto thinks OSU “has to do a much better job of making sure the focus isn’t only on athletics, even though that is the area that gets the most attention.”
He said at least in some ways, less value should be placed on athletics.
“In one sense, I would tell you I think there’s too much emphasis,” he said. “On the other hand … it’s part of the distinctiveness (of OSU).”
That emphasis falls on the shoulders of the self-funded Department of Athletics, which in turn helps the academic end of the spectrum grow broader and better, Steinmetz said. The department donated $9 million to the $109 million renovation of the William Oxley Thompson Memorial Library.
“For the one thing, our athletic department actually gives back to the academic side. That’s a rarity. You don’t see that. Our library here wouldn’t have been renovated if it wasn’t for help that the athletics gave to that final effort,” he said. “That’s sort of the perfect situation to be in, where we’re not diverting money away from student programs or faculty salaries, etc., over to the complex, but at the same time, they’re able to build (world-)class facilities.”
Steinmetz, however, said he doesn’t think those facilities, including the recently-opened, approximately $19 million basketball training facility, are an excuse for athletes to retreat from the academic side of college life. The importance, and increasing value, of a degree, he said, should be emphasized among OSU’s student-athletes, even those who leave school early to become a professional athlete.
“We should encourage for athletes to finish when they can, when they’re done with their other careers, because the value of that degree will tremendously help,” he said.