The Athletic Department's recent vision statement's call to action, although barely audible, speaks volumes. The document explicitly and passionately recommends... nothing, except that the University continue its current path with respect to funding, admissions and other forms of support. This is the correct vision because the benefits of athletics on balance outweigh the concerns.
That the University administration would seriously consider aiming for an award such as the Sears Directors' Cup is itself curious. The vision statement notes the extreme financial and academic costs that such a Quixotic crusade would require, and, indeed, no other elite university besides Stanford attempts to win the athletics program ranking. Duke officials and fans should get over their apparent and unjustified Stanford Envy.
Moreover, the Sears Cup's ability to quantify the strength of an athletics program in any meaningful way is seriously questionable. There are perhaps better ways--counting championships differently or adjusting the weight given to revenue sports--but any attempt to simplify success to one number is doomed to failure.
What makes Duke athletics successful is its competitiveness in a few sports and its wise decision not to invest many resources in others. Duke can compete for championships in sports such as women's golf and men's soccer, and, of course, men's and women's basketball, without breaking the financial or academic banks. Other sports, such as track and field, are fun and valuable but require too many scholarship or walk-on athletes for Duke to be able to realistically afford them.
The vision statement is understandably silent on one of the most pressing and sensitive issues that the Athletic Department is facing: what to do when its seeming one man show, Mike Krzyzewski, leaves. The Hall of Fame men's basketball coach has dropped hints that he may retire soon, and his loss would be potentially devastating for a department that has made him the center of attention. Athletics would do well to promote more strongly some of its other successful programs, such as women's golf.
Still, the most pressing question for Duke athletics is whether it can sustain success without sacrificing academic standards. As the vision statement itself subtely notes, Duke has lowered its standards as much as it can without appearing to do so by using graduation rates as nearly its only standard: "We have probably adjusted our admissions standards as much as possible consistent with our desire to ensure satisfactory academic performance and high graduation rates."
As an elite university, Duke should not be "adjusting" its standards any more and must act to keep athletics from further destroying the University's core mission.