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Auburn Athletics Fights to Save Academic Major

Jason Scott

Public administration, a generally unpopular undergraduate academic major in the political science department at Auburn University, was almost eliminated from the school’s offering by a curriculum review committee in 2013.

That is, until the athletic department intervened.

The Wall Street Journal reports that according to internal documents, the committee’s decision to eliminate the public administration major was ultimately overruled by top administrators after meeting with resistance from the athletic department.

Students majoring in public administration at Auburn number at roughly 100, accounting for less than one percent of Auburn’s total undergraduate student body. But in the fall semester of 2013, the year in which Auburn’s football team won the Southeastern Conference title and played in the National Championship game, 51 percent of the 111 students pursuing public administration majors were athletes, including the football team’s starting quarterback, running back, leading wide receiver and three star defensive players. More than a dozen football players on the team were majoring in public administration.

An athletic department memo from December 2012 reads: “If the public administration program is eliminated, the [graduation success rate] numbers of our student athletes will likely decline.”

Documents show that athletic department officials met with academic personnel, including provost Timothy Boosinger, urging them to keep the public administration program, even offering to use athletic department funds to help pay for its professors and support staff. Gary Waters, senior associate athletic director for academic services, wrote in a January 2013 email that athletics had made “similar investments in academic programs in the last few years.”

In August 2012, political science faculty voted unanimously to eliminate public administration. The following March, the academic review committee voted 10-1 to place the major on “inactive status.”

In April, Waters and athletic director Jay Jacobs met with Boosinger to argue to save the program. In June, following that meeting, Boosinger informed the chairman of the political science program that no action regarding public administration would be taken until a new dean was appointed to the College of Liberal Arts.

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When a new dean had been appointed in September of 2013, the provost’s office informed the academic review committee that public administration would remain an active program.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission, which supplies Auburn’s accreditation, says that decisions involving curriculum are the responsibility of the faculty. While the commission has not reviewed the situation at Auburn, a spokesperson said that if the commission had evidence that the athletic department influenced an academic decision, “there would be cause for concern.”

In May 2014, Boosinger appointed an internal committee to review enrollment trends in public administration and make recommendations about what action to take.

This season, public administration remains the most popular major among the nationally ranked Auburn football team.

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