One College's Retreat from Big-Time Sports

By Sisson, Carmen K | The Christian Science Monitor, July 12, 2007 | Go to article overview

One College's Retreat from Big-Time Sports

Sisson, Carmen K, The Christian Science Monitor

It's a tough crowd, this assembly of silver-haired Southern gentry. But David Pollick surveys his audience coolly, flashes a megawatt smile, and says something you might not expect to a room full of well-heeled college alums: "Anyone who would aspire to be a college president is a lunatic."

No doubt some have wondered about the sanity of Dr. Pollick, the 12th president of Birmingham-Southern College (BSC), who arrived at the school in 2004. Last year, he and the board of trustees decided sports had become too prominent at the private liberal arts college - a controversial stance in a state where people still revere Paul "Bear" Bryant, the legendary University of Alabama football coach, even though he died nearly a quarter century ago.

BSC, with 1,300 students, had just completed a rigorous seven- year process to reach the pinnacle of college athletic competition, Division I, but Pollick says it was burning its endowments to stay there. Just one of 117 full scholarships was going to academics. In effect, the school was paying students $3.5 million a year to compete - making them, in Pollick's eyes, professional athletes - and doing so as relatively small players in a big arena.

So on June 7, 2006, Pollick and the trustees made a highly unusual decision: to move BSC to Division III ranking. Neither the athletic director nor the students were consulted. As protesters, including parents and coaches, marched from the coliseum to the quad, Pollick and the trustees, escorted by police, filed into the student center by the back door and cast their votes. Shortly thereafter, the associate athletic director and five coaches quit, taking 60 athletes with them.

"I was flabbergasted," says Joe Dean, the athletic director, who stayed on. "I had no idea this was being considered, and I was disappointed I hadn't been brought into the loop."

But Pollick didn't blink and still doesn't. Mark Lester, chairman of the history department, says that's typical. "He's a risk taker, and I've never seen him second-guessing," says Dr. Lester. "Once he gets his mind on an idea, it's difficult to move him."

Pollick attributes his boldness to strong moral conviction, saying he saw in Birmingham-Southern a place to nurture an unwavering sense of mission. That single-mindedness has taken him from teaching in a one-room schoolhouse to leading a college. "This is my third college presidency," he tells the alumni gathered here. "If it were my first, I'd always be putting my toe in the water. You may have noticed I don't do that. It's very clear in my mind what our institution is, and that's all I care about."

His style takes some getting used to. Lester says that although Pollick is liked and respected by the faculty - most of whom supported the move to Division III - he keeps himself distant. It's a contrast to former president Neal Berte, who Lester says was close to faculty and knew every student by name.

For his part, Pollick admits he's not around a lot. He'd like to be with students more, but his days are spent doing what he says is a college president's main job: catering to alumni like the ones gathered here today and convincing them to part with large chunks of money.

Without a doubt, the impeccably dressed president is an effective salesman - and forthright. At this year's alumni event, he's continuing something he started last year - an official "mythbusting" session to separate fact from fiction. He insists rumors that he doesn't live on campus are unfounded. "This is where my underwear is, and that's where a guy lives, I'll tell you," he says to some laughter.

Likewise, he's heard scuttlebutt about his marriage, and he's out to refute that today as well. Yes, his second wife, Karen, is younger. Yes, they're practically newlyweds. Yes, her demanding career as a concert musician and conductor keeps her on the road a lot. …

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