In 2013, Auburn University’s curriculum review committee took up the case of a small, unpopular undergraduate major called public administration. After concluding that the major added very little to the school’s academic mission, the committee voted to eliminate it.

But according to internal documents and emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, the committee’s decision was ultimately overruled by top administrators after it met significant opposition from another powerful force on campus: Auburn’s athletic department.

In addition to meeting with the school’s provost to urge him to spare public administration, the documents show, top athletic officials also offered to use athletic department funds, if necessary, to help pay its professors and support staff. Gary Waters, Auburn’s senior associate athletic director for academic services, wrote in an email in January 2013 that athletics had made “similar investments in academic programs during the last few years,” although in those cases, he added, “it has not been publicized.”

In the fall semester of 2013, more than half of the roughly 100 students majoring in public administration were athletes, records show, including nearly all of the top stars on the Auburn football team, which would win the Southeastern Conference title and play in the national-championship game. “If the public administration program is eliminated, the [graduation success rate] numbers for our student-athletes will likely decline,” a December 2012 internal athletic department memo said.

An Auburn spokesman said that while various groups may provide input on curriculum decisions, the “athletic department has not improperly influenced academic decision-making.” The school said athletics has donated money and other resources to help several academic programs over the years, “but public administration is not one of them.”

For as long as universities have fielded big-time sports programs, many star athletes have gravitated to a handful of friendly majors that make it easier for them to meet the NCAA’s academic eligibility requirements. At some schools, these majors have come under intense scrutiny. An internal investigation at North Carolina last year found that many football and basketball players were enrolled in “no attendance” classes in the African and Afro-American Studies department, where the only requirement was the submission of a single research paper. The NCAA has told North Carolina it is investigating the matter.

Auburn faculty members, in interviews, said the athletic department’s interest in public administration represents a troubling new development. Michael Stern, the chairman of Auburn’s economics department and a former member of the faculty senate, said athletics is so powerful at Auburn that it operates like a “second university.” Whenever athletic interests intersect with an academic matter, he said, “it’s a different kind of process.”

According to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the agency that accredits Auburn, universities must place “primary responsibility for the content, quality and effectiveness of the curriculum with its faculty” and that decisions about majors must be made by people who are qualified in the field. The commission hasn’t reviewed the Auburn situation. In general, a spokeswoman said, if the commission received evidence that a school’s athletic department had influenced a curriculum decision, “there would be cause for concern.”

The Auburn spokesman said: “Auburn’s academic community makes all academic program and curriculum decisions. Auburn is fully committed to the integrity of its academic programs.”

In early 2012, documents show, a panel performing a review of the Auburn political science department, which oversees public administration, expressed doubt that the major “contributes a great deal to the Department’s education mission.” In May, provost Timothy Boosinger sent a memo supporting a proposal to suspend the major by the end of the next school year.

In August, according to documents, the political science faculty voted 13-0 to remove public administration as an active major. The following March, Auburn’s academic program review committee, the final faculty body to review such proposals, voted 10-1 to place the major on “inactive status.”

But even as the proposal was zooming toward final approval, the athletic department had begun a campaign to reverse it. In February 2013, Waters, the department’s academic officer, sent an email to Jay Jacobs, the athletic director, that said it was “extremely important” that they plead their case with Boosinger and Auburn president Jay Gogue as soon as possible. On April 9, Waters and Jacobs met with Boosinger. Gogue wasn’t present.

After the meeting, Boosinger’s position on the future of public administration softened. In a June email to Gerry Gryski, then the chairman of the political science department, he said there would be no action taken on the major until the College of Liberal Arts had appointed a new dean. In September, when Patricia Duffy, the chairwoman of Auburn’s curriculum committee, asked the provost’s office for an update, she received an email that said: “The Provost and the Dean have agreed to keep the Public Administration program open.”

In an interview this week, Gryski said he was unaware that the athletic department had offered money to help keep the major open. “I’m searching for a word here,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s incomprehensible.”

Auburn confirmed Wednesday that athletic department officials had offered to subsidize public administration during the meeting with Boosinger, but the provost had turned the offer down.

Waters, through a spokesman, said he told the provost during the meeting that he was concerned that cutting the major might have a “detrimental impact on the academic experience of students enrolled in that program.”

Auburn said the decision to save the major was Boosinger’s and that the provost changed his mind because the new dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Joseph Aistrup, asked to keep public administration open.

In an interview Wednesday, Aistrup said he felt it was important to preserve a pre-professional program with at least 100 majors. He said he decided to try to improve the program by giving it more resources. “I didn’t know there was a single student-athlete in the program,” he said. “It was not even on my radar screen.”

Auburn said the athletic department has contributed to the school’s academic side in the past by endowing professorships and donating $1.5 million to the College of Liberal Arts for the marching band. It once funded three years of a startup program in health and fitness for the kinesiology school and provided an adjunct professor to teach two classes in the journalism school, among other investments.

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Public administration majors account for less than 1% of Auburn’s undergraduate student body. But in the fall semester of 2013, documents show, 51% of the 111 students pursuing the degree were athletes. Among them were the football team’s starting quarterback and running back, its leading wide receiver and the three defensive players who led the team in interceptions, tackles and sacks. At the time the athletic department learned of the plan to close the major, Auburn’s football team was coming off its worst season in a half-century and had just fired its coach. The following season, the team would win the Southeastern Conference and lose to Florida State in the national-championship game.

This February, in response to a question from Auburn’s faculty senate, Boosinger asked the school’s institutional research office to examine enrollment data for athletes. The report showed that 26 football players, or 32% of the 2014 team, were majoring in public administration. In May, documents show, Boosinger appointed an internal committee to review these enrollment trends and make recommendations about what actions might be appropriate.

This season, Auburn is ranked No. 6 in college football’s preseason polls and is the early favorite to win the SEC title. Public administration is still the team’s most popular major.