On Academics and Athletics

February 15, 2013 | Blog

The Faculty Senate at UW-Madison is a very quiet place.  We meet monthly for about two hours and while the agenda is packed, hardly anyone asks questions or makes impassioned speeches (present company excluded, of course).

But on one issue, you can count on professors to speak up: athletics.

More specifically, the money paid to coaches and staff on campus invokes more vehemence and animosity from my colleagues than any other issue I’ve seen brought to the forefront.

I suspect the same is true at other schools.  For it’s fairly uniformly the case that salaries in athletics are far higher than those in academics and rise much, much faster.

But of course, you might say. And how silly, Sara, to doubt that this is not only a good thing, but a smart thing!  For as we all know, athletics brings money and needed attention to universities, generates revenue that benefits the entire institution, and more than pays for itself. In fact, people who care about financial aid ought to be nothing but thrilled to have an awesome football program. Right? I mean, don’t you remember that local banks have a history of contributing to financial aid when the players score touchdowns?

We hear this all the time. In fact, the budget for athletics is the one untouchable area of spending on campus, where no one dare ask hard questions lest we seem ungrateful or worse yet anti-Bucky.

This is silly. Let’s stipulate to a mutual fondness for competition and sheer enjoyment of football. Let’s agree that it’s important to have fun, and that fun attracts applications. And let’s even say that coaches “earn” those big salaries.  So what?  The relative salaries of coaches and faculty is merely the canary in the coal mine. The larger issue is over the relative status of academics vs. athletics on campus and what that imbalance says about the state of higher education at major universities.

As public universities struggle to stay afloat and talk of unbundling their instruction and research and just about everything else they do, it’s time for sports to be placed on the table too.  Because despite all of the protests to the contrary, rigorous analyses suggest that more often than not, athletics competes with academics for dollars.  And while there’s often no state funding invested in athletics, there’s no reason in the world for taxpayers to stand for activities that undermine the educational investments they’re paying for.

A recent brief from the Delta Cost Project asks and attempts to answer some really good questions using national data. It’s time for such questions to be asked and addressed by athletic boards, including  UW-Madison’s.  Here are points with which to start:

  • How much more do we spend per athlete compared to spending per average student?
  • How do trends in athletic costs compare to trends in academic costs? Has spending been cut in athletics to the same degree it’s been cut in academics? Do expenditures outpace revenues? 
  • What percent of the athletic budget is spent on student financial aid for athletes?  How does this compare to the university’s budget for financial aid for non-athletes?
  • What fraction of total athletic budget revenue comes from ticket sales? What percent comes from student fees? From institutional subsidies? 
  • What fraction of the money generated by athletics is distributed for the university’s financial aid program? How does this compare to the amount distributed at peer institutions, especially when taking into account student unmet need?
Of course athletic departments like Madison’s do use and publish data but the analyses are mainly concerned with public impressions, and this is why they highlight economic impact studies like these. The problem is that such studies do not address the direct and indirect impacts of athletics on academic programs and cannot assess what the university would look and feel like if it weren’t home to collegiate sports.  Unsurprisingly, I don’t see such information in the annual reports of the Athletic Board either (though admittedly these are only posted through 2010). 
For that kind of data, you have to look to places like the Faculty Senate.  Listen the angry voices of professors who’ve not had a cost-of-living increase in years but constantly watch the football and basketball coaches get enormous boosts. See the faces of staff members who are literally out-earned many times over by the “big men on campus.”  Hear the relative roar of the crowds over touchdowns versus Nobel Prizes.  Watch the surprise on students’ faces when they learn they are expected to attend class, not just games. There are effects of such choices. They’re all around us.
Tomorrow, the UW Athletic Board will vote on the Athletic Department’s budget for 2013-2014. The request is for $133 million.  That includes a one-time, $30 million expense for construction costs related to the department’s Student-Athlete Performance Center.  As Professor David McDonald has noted in the past, this is an Athletic Board with teeth.  It’s up to that shared governance body to consider the critical balances in play on this campus and elsewhere, and to ensure that academics aren’t outcompeted by athletics.

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