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Life and death in university administration

University of Colorado President Elizabeth Hoffman resigned today. The proximate cause, according to media reports, was the scandal in the football program. Hoffman took a big risk trying to fix the football fiasco while keeping Coach Gary Barnett on the payroll. Then the Ward Churchill imbroglio arrived on the Buffalos' reservation, with the storm over the football program still brewing. Hoffman did not hire either man, but she is taking the fall for their failures.

I'm on the record as supporting her decision to retain Barnett, while keeping him on a short leash. It might have been the right decision, but it was risky for her, politically incorrect, and it ultimately cost Ms. Hoffman. A risky decision, the Churchill skeleton coming out of the closet, and the power of modern media - that's the perfect trifecta, and a recipe for a resignation.

On the other side of the coin, here's what happens when you do fire a coach who also walked up to if not over every NCAA line: Washington & the NCAA agreed today on a $4.5 million settlement in the Neuheisel case. The NCAA is on the hook for $2.5 million, which is further evidence that the organization, shall we say, lacks competence. UW takes on the rest, which makes me wonder how much I should continue to give to my alma mater.

Incidentally, UW's decision is similar to one my current employer (Clemson) made fifteen years ago. Both schools cowed to the NCAA and the media, firing a head coach over what appear to be trivial infractions.* Both decisions wrecked very good football programs. But the episode at Colorado shows how costly it can be to buck the conventional wisdom and make the decision - absent the media pressure and all that comes with it - that you think is best for your school.

Life in the fishbowl that is university administration is no picnic, regardless of what academia's critics would have you believe. These people have a tough job. Somehwat ironically, I think Betsy Hoffman was up to it, but got beaten by a bad roll of the dice.

*In Clemson's case, the immediate infractions were for sweatshirts and trips to the Pizza Hut given to recruits, although more serious allegations had led to probation a decade earlier.

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