Auditing the UNL Athletic Department

Lincoln -- Back in the 1970s, when Woody Varner became president of the University of Nebraska (actually chancellor under the old organization), he asked for an audit of the institution so he would know what he was getting into. It had never been properly audited, he said.

Now President Hank Bounds is asking for an audit (program review) of the UNL athletic department. The occasion is the upcoming turnover of the UNL chancellor. The new chancellor should know what he is getting into, the thinking goes.

Actually, this is not a bad idea and should be extended to other parts of UNL, if not the entire institution. While it is true that the athletic department has seen its share of turmoil under the outgoing chancellor and the people he chose to staff it, there is more to UNL than athletics. Big questions remain as to why UNL was voted out of the Association of American Universities, the organization of the country's premier research institutions, and whether membership can be restored. The Nebraska Innovation Campus has had more than its share of troubles; surely it is of equal or greater importance to the future success of the state than is the athletic department. The continuing drama at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center needs a thorough review; its federal funding is on the Congressional chopping block for certain.

The question always arises as to whether such audits and program reviews should be made public. The fact that they might be is often a reason for not doing them. Hence, problems are allowed to fester and get worse.

The Kansas Board of Regents asked for an audit of K-State in 2009, on the occasion of a chancellor turnover. It was performed by the Grant Thornton company, which found many problems both in the athletic department and among the university's separate legal entities. The Kansas Press Association knew of the audit and demanded that it be made public. It was. Although many people were embarrassed by what the audit found, the institution emerged from it stronger in the end.

The conclusions of the K-State auditors bear repeating on the occasion of chancellor turnover at UNL:

The Foundation, the Alumni Association,.. and the Athletics Department view themselves, and are viewed by others, as part of or associated with the institution of KSU. However, they are all separate legal entities apart from the University. They all have as a common goal the advancement of KSU and have at times entered into transactions with one another in support of that goal. However, as separate legal entities, any transactions among them should be appropriately disclosed, approved and documented allowing for transparency of intent and substance. The failure to do so raises the question of the legitimacy of the transaction. Our report details numerous instances where transactions between the various entities did not meet this standard.

The issues that exist at UNL are too often covered over by a Go Big Red enthusiasm that is also a strategy to divert attention from real problems. But it must be remembered what Woody Varner did after getting his audit and making it public. He waved it as a "clean bill of health" across the state and in the halls of the State Capitol. He went on to build both state and private support for the University as never before.