Question: Why Do Development Offices Raise Money For Sports When Academics Are Being Cut?

June 16, 2011, 12:45 pm

I’ve got an idea:  let’s run a fund-raiser for the humanities!

Answer: Because the entertainment value of major sports for fans, alumni/ae and students — primarily the football and basketball programs that can be packaged and sold to a mass audience –  is viewed as a necessary and normal feature of university life.  But that’s not true.  Instead, it is a competitor for funds that ought to be going to teaching and learning, and because of that, part of what threatens the survival of full-time academic labor and the accessibility of higher education to a broad range of students.

Why am I, a sports fan, thinking these crazy thoughts?  Libby Sander’s reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education this morning that 22 elite college sports programs made a profit in the last fiscal year.  This is an increase from “from 14 the previous year….The median surplus at those programs was $7.4-million last year, up from $4.4-million in 2009.”  However, the median deficit in the Football Bowl Subdivision (this is the category that used to be called Division I-A) was $11.6 million.

Let me put this in the homey, old-timey budget language that conservative politicians prefer.  This news is similar saying that, of the seventy people who live on my street, two of us made more than we did last year, and everyone else went more deeply into debt.  And both of us who made money did so because our parents wrote us a big, tax-deductible check.

Of course, this is old news.  But think of the aggregate deficits in programs below the FBS.  It’s a staggering amount of money that could be used to lower tuitions, give financial aid and hire full-time faculty who would be able to devote themselves to educating students at public schools the way  can devote ourselves to teaching and advising at places like Zenith.  That colleges and universities would continue to invest in an enterprise on the unproven theory that it is good for the overall fiscal health of the institution is a business model that would simply be jeered at outside the Church of Latter Day Sportsfans.

If you are waiting for one of those garden-variety attacks on college sports programs more generally, you can stop reading:  I don’t think they are any less useful than any of the other budget lines devoted to co-curricular student life.  I continue to believe that organized sports are good for student-athletes:  at their best they create a sense of community and identity, instill discipline, and — here’s something that troubles our intellectual project — teach students how to cope with failure.  Furthermore, it is only a very few teams who are responsible for the vast majority of a school’s athletic budget.  If you take out the big so-called “revenue generating” sports like football, and men’s and women’s basketball, athletic programs represent a lot of jobs, most of which are not particularly well paid. You can, for example, get a top-flight, national team quality rowing coach who manages 50 – 100 athletes at a D-I school for under $80K, most pay more like $45K, and many entry level coaching positions at Ivy League rowing (and other athletic) programs pay under $10K, if they pay at all.

But you have to ask:  in a period of budget cutting, why are enterprises that justify themselves through their supposed potential to generate revenue to support the university’s academic mission — but actually don’t — not scrutinized?  With another million tossed on top, that $11.6 million that the average school loses on major sports represents an endowment that would add three tenure-track positions.  Don’t like tenure?  Well, budget those positions as contract faculty earning good wages and benefits at $200K a year, and we are talking about employing 55 extra faculty.  Instead, these schools are howling about how much the English department costs and flushing all this money away.

Furthermore, when athletic programs are threatened, it seems to be a trigger for unbelievable fundraising that academic cuts don’t inspire, despite the fact that a B.A. in history is more likely to send a young person off to law or medical school than four years stomping around on the sidelines as a second string special teams dude.  At UC-Berkeley, a school that has suffered debilitating cuts to its academic programs, three programs that were on the block — women’s lacrosse, women’s gymnastics and rugby — were saved only a few months after the cuts were announced by fundraising solicited by “alumni, student-athletes, coaches and fans.”  Of course, cutting these teams would not have been necessary if the so-called “revenue generating” sports were not swallowing the athletic budget.

While the pledges that saved these programs sound like an act of spontaneous love, those of us who work for universities know that no one is allowed to raise money without the permission and support of the development office. Furthermore, you don’t come up with the kind of money that Berkeley did (between $12 and $13 million in pledges) without having tapped some very, very deep pockets.  We are not talking bake sales and pathetic, dinner time cold calls from student-athletes.  My guess? Somebody pulled the trigger on donors who had already been identified, and the “cuts” had been targeted in such a way as to activate those donors.

What a development officer would tell you is that these major donors aren’t willing to give that kind of money to support teaching or learning, and that the university might as well collect it for something they do support — even if that project creates or solidifies a budget commitment that could otherwise be eliminated.  Giving money to schools for high-profile sports rather than education is an absurd proposition unless you put it in the context that policy makers and major foundations like Gates appear to believe that a teaching career is the professional equivalent of a life spent as a Peace Corps volunteer or a nun.  However, if that is so, whose fault is that?  Who is not making the argument for the importance of these fields?  The very highly paid administrators and fundraisers whose job it is to do so, that’s who.  Too often the burden of persuasion is put on the shoulders of those of us who are also laboring 50 – 80 hours a week in the classroom:  this is a little like telling the people who walked out of Merrill Lynch with their personal items packed up in boxes on an hour’s notice that they were personally responsible for policies set by the CEO, the Board of Directors, the Fed and Congressional oversight committees.

Big-time sports are a fiscal drag on the educational enterprise, and should not be the object of major fund-raising.  Worse, they are a source of fictional knowledge about what role colleges and universities are supposed to play in our political and social economy.  They promote the notion that higher education is really just entertainment and that college and university campuses are
a playground for students and alumni/ae alike.  If we faculty have a role in this, it is to demand answers to these questions, particularly since we are doing the lion’s share of the work for a fraction of what these programs cost.

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