Elizabeth Altmaier, Counseling Psychology

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Elizabeth Altmaier’s primary research is in health psychology, specifically on the ways in which cancer patients cope with the aftereffects of treatment, but for the last decade or so, she’s also been quite focused on Hawkeye athletics.

Since 2001, the professor in the Counseling Psychology Program in the UI College of Education has served as the University’s faculty athletics representative. In this role, Altmaier is a liaison between the University and the Big Ten Conference and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Her job is to ensure that the University maintains the appropriate balance between academics and athletics for all student athletes.

When she’s not thinking about athletics, she’s teaching and mentoring doctoral students in the Counseling Psychology Program and teaching a first-year seminar on forgiveness. In her limited free time, she volunteers with hospice and serves as a tutor for people finishing their GEDs. In recent summers, she has traveled to Yaroslavl, Russia, to serve as a citizen volunteer in the local children’s and women’s psychiatric wards.

On June 30, Altmaier will complete her appointment as Iowa’s faculty athletics representative. She recently sat down with fyi to talk about intercollegiate athletics and why she thinks the faculty should be more involved.

How do you think athletics plays a role in higher education?

There are good parts and bad parts of intercollegiate athletics nationally. One of the clichés that people like to say is “Athletics is the front porch of an institution.” That’s one good part and that is where it serves as a unifying theme for alumni and supporters. Competition is valued. Kids have an opportunity to perform at the highest levels. People have a way to identify with the university even though they’re not alumni. There are lots of competitive events, all of which are exciting and compelling. And there are always individuals who have wonderful personal successes, many times against difficult odds.

Unfortunately, I think athletics can also be like a kitchen. It’s been said that people don’t eat at restaurants where they have cooked. The inner workings of what appears to be a lovely dish on the table aren’t that lovely in the kitchen. The reality is there are parts of national intercollegiate athletics, particularly in Division I, that are very difficult. There’s always a potential for student athletes to be taken advantage of and exploited. There’s an increasing gap between the money that’s made by institutions, conferences and athletics personnel and the fact that student athletes are frequently not even receiving their cost of attendance. And some institutions are having financial difficulties due to general fund support of athletics.

At a recent Faculty Senate meeting, you encouraged faculty to get more involved and become more knowledgeable about what’s going on with athletics. What prompted you to say that?

I have not found our Faculty Senate to be as involved as some are in the Big Ten. I think, no matter who the faculty representative is, no matter who the president is, and no matter who the athletics director is, the faculty themselves need to have involvement in intercollegiate athletics. The reason for that is that while athletics is obviously akin to a business, it’s not a business. It is an educational process. It certainly has qualities that make it look more like a business enterprise than an academic function, but it’s a key part of our university, and consequently, it must maintain an academic function.

What are some ways that faculty can get more involved or more knowledgeable?

Faculty can volunteer to be involved with the Presidential Committee on Athletics (PCA). They can ask for more frequent reports. They can inform themselves on the major issues of the day. They can invite people such as myself or the athletics director or the chair of the PCA to come and talk to them.

What are some of those major issues?

There are three national issues and one local issue I would mention. The Big Ten and the NCAA are struggling with how much non-classroom-based instruction should be used by student athletes. On the one hand, student athletes should be able to take any course in any format that can be taken by students in general. But a student athlete is meant to be a student—if the student athlete is enrolled in all distributed learning courses and is, essentially, never on campus and never in a classroom, that can lead to many problems.

With Elizabeth Altmaier’s term as faculty athletics representative winding down, President Sally Mason has announced the appointment of two faculty members to fill this role. Read more about Gene Parkin, professor in the College of Engineering, and Ellie Herman, a clinical professor in the College of Education, at news-releases.uiowa.edu/2011/

Another national issue is commercialization. The NCAA is considering proposed legislation that would greatly reduce restrictions on the use of student athletes in commercial product advertisements and sponsorships. The commercialism standards are only print-based and need reforming given the many Internet platforms and products; however, there is not agreement on how much, and what types, of commercialism are acceptable.

The third national issue is concussion management. Clearly this is a very important topic for the NCAA, particularly given research that shows that it’s not so much that you had concussions but how the concussions were managed that determines their long-term impact.

The fourth issue, which is a local issue and something I feel very strongly about, is gender equity, where I am disappointed in Iowa’s lack of progress. Quite a few years ago, the Big Ten set as a conference goal that all schools would have gender equity, which essentially means participation is proportionate to the percentage of men and women enrolled in the student body. Most of the Big Ten schools are at or close to this goal. The last time I checked—about six months ago—we were nine percentage points away. I don’t know Nebraska’s, but at that time, we were the worst of the Big Ten and had been that way for several years.

You don’t typically attend athletics events. Why?

I have a very strong philosophy on faculty athletics representatives being fans—I do not believe they can be. Every coach has heard from me on more than one occasion that if there is a particular competition that coach wants me to attend, I’m absolutely thrilled to come, but I will not be at any competition without that invitation. Unfortunately, in the Big Ten even, there are reps who only attend football games and men’s basketball games; that sends a message that I would never want to send. If I had the time and the ability to go to all of the competitions I would probably go to some every year for every team.

What do you do in your free time?

This past summer, along with the Spot, FasTrac, and the Mayor’s Youth Empowerment Program, I organized a collaboration called MORE Than “Something to Do.” We put this together because of my belief and the organizations’ beliefs that a lot of the problems in the southeast side of Iowa City—real or perceived problems—come about because many of these at-risk kids need more than just an activity. Activities are great, but activities don’t solve basic problems.

We were able to serve quite a few elementary, middle, and high school youth, and one of the things I was particularly interested in was the importance of goals and goal setting. We organized four Friday night events for high school kids and each of them featured a well-known person as a speaker. For example, Tom Brands came one night, and he gave an amazing talk about personal goals. Each of these notable people came and talked about what it was like for them to set goals, and how they persevered to meet goals.

It seems like a thread through your work and leisure time is connecting the world of academia to the rest of the world in tangible ways. Why is that?

My research is applied. I realize that some faculty, by necessity, work on topics that isolate them rather than connect them. A university has to be like that. That’s part of what we do as faculty, but that isolation is something nonacademics don’t always understand. So I believe faculty whenever possible ought to work in the other direction so the University is a center of outreach.