Colleges and universities throughout the country are collectively saying that controlling the rising cost of tuition is at the top of their priority lists.
And then Steve Spurrier this month signs a $12 million coaching deal, reportedly worth $2 million per year for the next six football seasons.
Granted, the high-profile football coach at the University of Florida has been successful, having led the Gators last year to college's most prestigious sports title, the mythical number one ranking atop the gridiron polls.
The former football standout certainly possesses a vast knowledge of the game and has the personality to motivate young people. But does this justify earning as much as the combined salaries of 24 deans of education? Or 16 university presidents?
According to the latest figures released by the Chronicle of Higher Education, that is what Spurrier's contract is worth.
In comparison, the average salary for a professor at a public institution in Florida is $54,649. And despite promises by Florida lawmakers to offer $14 million in need-based tuition assistance, students will still see a 7.8 percent increase in their tuition this year. One has to wonder what effect Spurrier's salary had on the tuition for students at the University of Florida.
Spurrier's base salary for 1997 has been reported at only $168,850, but with bonuses and extras will total almost $2 million. These incentives include 40 tickets for each home game, a car for both him and his wife, bonuses for reaching bowl games and from his football camp.
While faculty members scramble for extra football tickets for family and friends, Spurrier can relax knowing that his loved ones won't have to worry about watching in person as the Gators trounce such home opponents as Central Michigan.
His 1998 salary jumps to $1,883,669, minus bonuses and extras.
Not surprisingly, 37 percent of full-time faculty members at public universities indicated in the Chronicle survey that intercollegiate sports are overemphasized at their respective institutions. Ironically, only 21 percent of their peers at private universities felt likewise.
Perhaps that is one reason we haven't seen a private university's football team ranked number one for quite some time.
They've taken a novel approach by emphasizing academics.
The staggering Spurrier salary figure surely leaves most of us involved in higher education shaking our heads and wondering why we chose academics as opposed to athletics as a profession.
Of course, Spurrier can always point to tenure as a perk that he can never attain as a football coach. Then again, who really needs tenure when you are earning the kind of money he is - more than a single professor would probably earn in a whole tenured career.
It is interesting to note that the University of Florida is ranked 68th nationally in terms of total endowment and 29th among public schools concerning endowment per student. Respectable numbers, to be sure, but not on scale with their football rankings. Perhaps their development officer should be offered football-like incentives.
The message being sent by the University of Florida to the rest of academia is disturbing, to say the least, and will surely cause concern among the other football powerhouses.
If Spurrier is worth $12 million, is Joe Paterno, the venerable Penn State coach, worth twice that? Is this a Tom Cruise versus Jack Lemmon analogy? Does it ultimately become a question of who is the bigger draw for the gate?
There is little doubt that big time sports are imbedded in our nation's psyche as indelibly as black ink on a white dress shirt. There appears to be no breaking point for the fan who is consumed much more with x's and o's than the declining classroom skills so apparent at many schools across the country.
A day with your family at a Division One football game can cost you hundreds of dollars when you consider tickets, parking, accommodations and meals. The 90,000-plus faithful fans at such schools as Penn State and the University of Michigan each weekend don't seem to care, however. Just try getting season tickets for the Nittany Lions.
The corporate sector, whose very existence depends on skilled, learned employees, has indeed made a commitment to higher education over the past few years by pumping millions of dollars into a variety of research programs at colleges and universities.
But it all seems to pale in comparison with the Nike swoosh that has become an integral part of the campus culture at our nation's colleges.
* Jeff Lewis is director of university relations at Marywood University, Scranton, Pa.