UI ATHLETICS GETS BIG BREAKS DURING FINANCIAL CRISES
By Bob Dickow, Department of Music, University of Idaho
President, UI Federation of Teachers, AFT/AFL-CIO
Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho
President, Higher Education Council
Idaho Federation of Teachers
Shorter version appeared in The Idaho State Journal (Jan. 2, 2009)
Read also "Back to the Big Sky"
During the last nine seasons, the University of Idaho (UI) football team has lost 82 of 105 games. Even with its winning seasons as members of the Big Sky conference, its "all-time ranking" is 118 out of 125 schools. Even the hiring of the celebrated Dennis Erickson in 2006 did not do the trick. In fact, after his quick departure after a 4-8 season, the earlier motto "Erickson is Back, Are You?" turned into phrases unprintable for this newspaper.
For the past four seasons the UI men's basketball team has lost 88 of 120 games. Its current NCAA standing is 316th out of 341 colleges and universities. If any UI academic program had such a poor performance record, it would certainly be eliminated or at least reduced in its mission. But since 1999 state funding for UI athletics went from $1.78 million to $3.04 million, a 71 percent increase. By comparison general education budgets for Idaho higher education have increased only 46 percent during the same period. Since 1999 private contributions to UI athletics rose 246 percent, indicating the potential for it to wean itself, as any non-academic program should, from its state subsidy.
In 2003 athletics was given a $500,000 "gift" from the president's office, presumably to cover the costs of joining the Western Athletics Conference. Also in 2003 the basketball coach received a $15,000 pay raise, the second highest in the university. UI athletic director Robert Spear tried to fudge the raise as one based on future performance, but the increment was added to his base salary before the season began.
During the financial crisis of 2004-05 the UI liberal arts college was forced to cut $326,000, but $322,600 was added to the athletics department budget. A faculty committee recommended that then President Tim White reduce the athletic budget by $300,000, but he decided to fire 27 staff employees instead. While all other UI faculty and staff received little or no raises for most of the new century, the athletic director enjoyed a 31 percent increase from 2004-2008. In 2008 the salary line for football coaches with record losses was increased 8 percent.
In 1987 the State Board of Education reinstituted the policy of general education monies for athletics. The annual subsidy for UI has grown from $665,500 to $2,912,929, a 338 percent increase. The other campuses experienced similar increases. Without this subsidy the Vandals won five Big Sky championships from 1983-87! An article published in 2000 stated that the portion of national athletic budgets that were state funds was an average of 9 percent, but in FY99 that portion for UI was 23 percent. See D. L. Fulks, "Revenues and Expenses of Division I and Division II Intercollegiate Athletic Program—Financial Trends and Relationship 1999," Indianapolis, IN: NCAA Publishing, 2000.
Since 1997 all UI departments have paid an administrative fee on all external funds to the central administration. The fee has now risen to 8 percent, but athletics only pays 3 percent. From 2001-2004 athletics paid no administrative fee at all, claiming that it had to reach gender equity goals, while all other units paid 5 percent. What is odd about this excuse is that UI athletics has received gender equity money from the Legislature, starting with $115,000 in 1997 and growing to $809,266 this year.
Many other departments could give much better reasons why they too should be exempt from this administrative fee. Auxiliary services and facilities management generate lots of external funds, and they could very well argue that their salaries, 19 percent of which are below the poverty level, should rise before they are required to pay the fee.
The athletic department has also defended its low administrative fee by boasting it returns $2.5 million back to the university in tuition, fees, room and board for scholarship students. Over half these scholarships, however, are funded by the state. Private scholarship funds for all UI colleges total $4.1 million, so they have yet another good reason to have a lower administrative fee. Many departments also offer their students employment opportunities. The chair of computer science boasts that his department offers $80,000 to students who are willing to grade papers, help with research, or serve as teaching assistants.
If the implication of this claim above is that athletics makes money for UI, then this is clearly false. This year the athletics department estimated that it would take in $2.1 million in student fees and $726,500 in "institutional support," in addition to the $2.9 million direct subsidy from the Legislature. Simple arithmetic shows at least a $5.7 million deficit not "profit."
A national study concluded that only nine athletic programs are able to actually return money to their respective academic programs. Contrary to conventional wisdom, winning athletic programs do not increase alumni funding. As a Vice President at the University of Notre Dame says: "There is no empirical evidence demonstrating a correlation between athletic department achievement and alumni fund-raising success." This is a school that can tell us a lot about academic excellence and winning football teams, at least until the last several years. Studies have shown that alumni give on the basis of consistent academic excellence not inconsistent athletic records.
Winning football teams at Wisconsin, Michigan, UCLA, Texas, and Washington correlate with low rankings of 126, 128, 134, 136, and 144 respectively on a national alumni giving list published by U.S. News & World Report. Coming from Oregon State, President Tim White once boasted about how much money its winning football team brought in, but in 2005 the OSU athletic department had a $4 million deficit.
In December, 2008, the UI faculty senate chair refuses to bring up the administrative fee issue because she did not think it was fair to pick on any one specific unit of the university during bad times. But when one program has been favored over others for years, then an appeal to equitable treatment is the only principled position.
The highest paid official in Idaho is not the governor at $108,727, and not even the Boise State president at $299,416. It is the BSU football coach, whose salary has doubled in the last two years to $806,998. The BSU win over Oklahoma was the most exciting game I have ever seen, but I was entertained not edified, the principal reason that we have universities. Something is terribly wrong with our priorities at the nation's colleges and universities.