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Oregon State's president doesn't want to do away with the Pac-12 conference


There are just a few weeks of the regular college football season to go. And while a national championship hangs in the balance for a handful of teams, others are already looking ahead to next year. 2024 will see big changes for several schools that are leaving athletic conferences that they've called home for decades. One of those conferences is one of the oldest in college sports. The Pac-12 is on the verge of being extinct. Next year, only two schools will call the Pac-12 home. Dr. Jayathi Murthy leads one of them. She's the president of Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JAYATHI MURTHY: Hi, Juana. Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So you'd been on the job for less than a month when UCLA and USC decided to leave the Pac-12 in search of more TV broadcast money and for greater competition. And eventually every university in the conference, except for your school, Oregon State, and Washington State made the decision to leave. So I want to start by asking you, what was the reaction there in Oregon like to this news?

MURTHY: Well, clearly shock and disappointment that we'd take a 108-year-old conference and have it simply destroyed overnight - so a great deal of anger and, you know, I want to say a great deal of grief around that idea. You'll be surprised at how saddened people were, actually.

SUMMERS: In a letter to your campus community, you wrote that athletic revenue could fall $41 million - or about 44% - in the next few years. And that sounds like a big hit. How big of a deal is it, and how do you think you can make that money up?

MURTHY: It is a big deal, right? So we're looking for a number of different revenue pathways. Some of it will be from our own internal resources. There's a huge surge in philanthropy because people like that we're fighting for our students. We've been having deep discussions with our legislature to see if they can support us. I will mention that every one of our home games has been an absolute sellout this year.

SUMMERS: I love college sports, and it sounds like you do, too. But there are a lot of people out there who couldn't care less about college athletics. So make the case for us - why should they care what division Oregon State plays in? Do any of the millions of dollars brought in by this athletic revenue go towards nonathletic purposes?

MURTHY: I understand, you know, what people are asking. I know, you know, academics is deeply, deeply important, and OSU is investing deeply in academics. But athletics - this is a well-worn phrase. Athletics is the front door to the university, and it actually is. I'll tell you something else. I mean, you know, there's a lot of talk about, you know, football and what do we care about football and, you know, it's all about money. Our media rights and football revenues fund so much else. Some of the most important things they fund are women's athletics - right? - and our support of Title IX. And they support Olympic sports. These are non-revenue-generating sports.

SUMMERS: Just to put a finer point on it here, though, just thinking about an example, if football revenue, for instance, were to go down, does that, say, translate to less money for research or instructors? I'm trying to see - is there a link between the athletic revenue and the academic function of the university?

MURTHY: There's no direct link to the revenue, but our profile nationally matters. And athletics gives us that national profile.

SUMMERS: Looking ahead to the future of the Pac-12, to the future of Oregon State, what's your vision? In an ideal scenario, what do you hope happens next?

MURTHY: As you know, the NCAA requires us to build up to eight teams. We've got two years to do it. What I'm hoping that we'll get to is put OSU front and center - make us visible across the country. So we'll be looking for alliances and paths forward. I know how good we are. I know that we've got plenty of fight in us. And - you know, and we're on moral high ground, all right? I mean, we are doing right. We're doing right. We're in the right. And so we will fight it out.

SUMMERS: Dr. Jayathi Murthy is president of Oregon State University. Thank you.

MURTHY: Thank you so much, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kathryn Fox
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.