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).
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: