In his scholarly-looking office, historian Larry Powell appears as far removed from athletics as any Tulane University faculty member could be. Shelves of books rise all around and a portrait of revered abolitionist Frederick Douglass hangs on the wall behind him. Powell normally teaches courses on the American Civil War, Southern history, and Reconstruction, but for now he is preoccupied with a reconstruction of another sort, that of Tulane's intercollegiate athletic program.
He is heading up a blue-ribbon committee assigned to help steer a new athletic course for the school as it picks up the pieces following last spring's basketball scandal. When point-shaving and illegal recruiting activities were discovered, the administration decided to drop men's varsity basketball altogether, while keeping the remainder of its Division IA, or major, athletic program.
Dr. Eamon Kelly, the school's president and the man who appointed Powell, believes the Select Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics and Academics has an opportunity to ``provide a model that could be useful nationally.''
And how does Powell feel about all this?
``Excited and very nervous, not because I'll be taking a lot of heat, but because it is an awesome responsibility and I hope I can measure up and be equal to the task. I'm also nervous because I'm not an expert at this stuff.''
Until now, he has had no direct involvement with sports on the campus outside of attending a few football games each year. The only perspective he claims to bring to the job is that of Little League father, box score reader, and ESPN viewer.
If that makes Powell a stranger in the strange land of big-time college athletics, Dr. Kelly doesn't seem to mind. He likes the fresh outlook Powell brings to the job and his sensitivity to the school's academic requirements, which make it one of the 24 most selective universities in the nation according to the American Council on Education.
``Larry is a first-rate scholar and a well-respected faculty member with tremendous credibility,'' says Dr. Kelly.
He also is a well-published one who has postponed his sabbatical and given up his teaching duties until the committee submits its policy recommendations in December.
``The 200 readers or so of my next book can wait,'' says Tulane's Honors Program Professor of the Year with straight-faced humor.
In his new capacity, putting together a representative 13-person committee of administrators, students, faculty members, and alums was the top priority. Athletes were left out, lest they come under undue public pressure.
Powell wanted a ``working committee,'' or one in which divergent viewpoints could be accomodated, yet a consensus realized. ``We haven't gone out to get the most avid Tulane booster, then tried to balance him against the most vocal academic opponent of athletics. I don't think it makes sense to build in irreconciliable differences and paralyzing conflict.''
Among the topics to be explored are admissions and academic standards for student-athletes, recruiting practices, financing of the athletic program, and the means of dealing with drug and societal type problems.
As an individual profoundly influenced by the civil rights movement, Powell perceives the widespread college practice of compromising entrance requirements, especially for outstanding black athletes, as dangerous. ``We may be sending very bad signals to the secondary schools, telling them that it's all right for them to let poorly prepared students advance because colleges are going to admit them. In that way we might be contributing to the miseducation of a generation of students, black and white, probably predominantly black.''
Before the committee begins its regular meetings in September, Powell intends to take a ``crash course'' on the operation of college athletics. ``I'm only taking lessons right now,'' he claims in preparation for fact-finding missions to other campuses.
``I want to visit schools that have been able to harmonize athletics and academics, and then determine how they do it,'' he says.
Through the grapevine, he has learned that programs at smaller private schools like Duke and Stanford bear closer examination. He expects the committee will have some thoughts on his itinerary, too, since his task is to gather information for the purpose of discussion.
On a personal level Powell intends to take an idealistic approach in studying the athletic path Tulane will follow. ``To me the litmus test is what is the principled thing to do, what is the right thing. I don't want to get into the political question of what's the pragmatic thing to do, although that definitely has to enter into any decision that's made and policy adopted.''