Dave Brandon stepped into the role of Athletic Director in 2010. Having served as CEO of Domino’s Pizza, the administration saw him as an ideal candidate to bring corporate values to Michigan athletics. And in this regard, he didn’t disappoint. During his tenure, the accelerated the process of marketization—raising student ticket prices to an all-time high, introducing spectacles like airshows with skydivers, and promoting commercial partnerships (how could we forget that ominous Kraft noodle). But as of October 31 he’s been pushed out.
Organizers and activists on campus can draw three lessons from Brandon’s resignation.
1) Student Protest Gets Results. Even diehard sports fans had been complaining for years about rising ticket prices, low attendance, and losing records before a negligent coaching decision to put QB Shane Morris back in the game against Minnesota despite a concussion captured media attention and became a national scandal. Much of this attention was directed at Brady Hoke. But it was only when hundreds of angry students rallied on the Diag and outside President Schlissel’s house on September 30 that the message actually hit home. Notably, they aimed higher than Hoke and called instead for Brandon’s ouster. A month later, he was gone.
2) But the Real Problems Run Much Deeper. It’s great that the campus came together to oppose the mismanagement and corporatization of Brandon’s leadership, but it begs the question why the same attention wasn’t paid to the issue of sexual assault and institutional cover-ups within Michigan Athletics and on campus more generally. After Brendon Gibbons, who would later become the football team’s starting kicker, raped a woman in 2009 and his teammate tried to scare the survivor into keeping quiet, the Athletics department all but covered it up for four years—until his football eligibility had nearly expired. Then they expelled him. Although the rape didn’t take place during Brandon’s tenure, he nevertheless kept things quiet for nearly three years. Students organized among themselves and carried out actions in protest—one of the demos was even covered in the national news—but it didn’t “catch” among the student body. In the end, it’s not surprising that confronting patriarchy may not be as easy to get on board with as wearing a donor-funded #FIREDAVEBRANDON t-shirt, but that just shows how much work still has to be done.
3) Michigan Athletics and the Hydra of Financialization. The problem that the Hydra posed to Hercules was that you could not simply cut off one of its heads because another would grow in its place. The same thing is happening here. In fact, we could say that Brandon is but the second, not the first, in a succession of hydra heads promoting financialization. While Brandon presided over the rededication of the Big House following the completion of the stadium’s $226 million renovation and expansion in 2010, this project was set in motion 30 months before he stepped into office. On October 31, 2014, the next head was called forth. University President Mark Schlissel appointed James Hackett as a temporary replacement to the former Domino’s CEO-turned-Athletic Director. Hackett, CEO of Steelcase — the world’s largest office furniture manufacturer — brings a similar background in business and finance to the position that made Brandon the ideal candidate. Together, Hackett and Schlissel are looking for a new candidate to fill not so much a power vacuum, but a pre-determined role in the financialized research university.
As Stephen Ross said in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, “There’s a lot more to the job than winning football games.” To be successful, the new Athletic Director will have to, in Brandon’s words, “raise revenue, deploy capital, manage costs, market to a broad group of stakeholders…” And raising revenue and deploying capital are two things that Michigan Athletics certainly excels at. In 2009, Michigan maintained its status as one of six athletic programs with a budget surplus for the fifth consecutive year. This did not coincide with any cuts in spending; in fact, spending in 2009 increased by $5.5 million from the previous year. Since then, Athletics has seen an explosion of construction projects, turning South Campus into a modern Olympia. “Domino’s Pizza is a $7.5 billion company doing business in 72 countries, and the most capital I ever spent in one year was $40 million,” Brandon told the New York Times, while in his four years at Michigan he spent over $300 million on capital projects.
Can this growth, however, necessarily be seen as a good thing? One of the things we’ve found in our research on construction bonds and university debt is that the administration has a vested interest in weaning itself off of state funding in favor of privately funded bonds because this allows it greater flexibility in how it spends its money. This shift, however, comes at a cost. To attract private funding, the University, like any business playing the game of Wall Street, needs a good credit score. Wealthy students who can pay higher tuition is a great way to ensure a good credit score, but how do you attract wealthy students? One way would be to pump private bonds into athletics to construct state-of-the-art facilities for student use and pleasure, while at the same time bolstering an industry that profits off the unpaid labor of student athletes (In this way, the financialization of Michigan Athletics contributes to the ongoing restructuring of the university in general—making it less and less affordable, accessible, and diverse.
So who will be the next Athletic Director? It’s a question as ridiculous as asking who will be the next head of the hydra.