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The Price of Excellence

March 11, 2010
by Eric Simons
coach and football players

Can Cal afford athletics?

On October 7, 2006, one of the largest and rowdiest crowds in Cal football history showed up at Memorial Stadium to watch then-16th-ranked Cal play the 11th-ranked, undefeated Oregon. It was the biggest home game of the year, for a team with a ton of preseason hype and legitimate national title aspirations. The 72,000-seat stadium was packed to the highest risers.

It was not the only big event on campus that week. Four days earlier, Berkeley professor George Smoot had won the Nobel Prize for physics and just before kickoff the laureate trotted out onto the turf along with Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. The student section, a jumping, chaotic jumble of blue-and-gold fanatics, began chanting “No-bel Prize! No-bel Prize!” After flipping the ceremonial pregame coin, Smoot clambered onto the dais separating the stands from the field, and led the students in a cheer of “Go Bears!”

If you were in Memorial Stadium that day, listening to a raucous crowd of football fans roaring their approval of the astrophysicist who discovered anisotropies in the cosmic microwave background, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was no place in the world that had married academics and athletics quite like Cal had. Where else but Berkeley would such diverse stars as George Smoot and DeSean Jackson be celebrated in equal measure?

Being good at everything— something the administration likes to call “comprehensive excellence”—has become a kind of Berkeley mantra. In the best of times, it’s a high aspiration to hold, but in 2010, when the state has cut the University of California’s funding by hundreds of millions of dollars, the Regents have raised student fees by 9.3 percent, and faculty and staff have been forced to take furloughs, comprehensive excellence begins to look like an impossible dream.

Last fall a group of faculty members submitted a resolution to the faculty senate asking the chancellor to stop subsidizing sports and to prioritize education, as befitting one of the premier universities in the world. It passed, 91–68. While the gesture was largely symbolic (only about 10 percent of the faculty cast a vote and the measure is non-binding), it underscored a problem for a university that suddenly has more than its share and rekindled debate about the kind of place Cal should be.

Brian Barsky, a professor of vision science and computer science, is one of the two lead authors of the Academics First measure along with mechanical engineering professor Alice Agogino. He says he was motivated to introduce the faculty senate resolution when he discovered that intercollegiate athletics was receiving millions of dollars, which he says could have supported academics at a time when the university needed to focus on its core mission of education and research. As evidence, he points to plans to close the library over final exam week, a virtual freeze on hiring of new faculty, an English department that had telephones removed from its offices, student programs and course offerings that are being cut, and a high school science education program that no longer exists.

“That’s how severe this situation is becoming, and I think it’s just egregious,” Barsky says. “Couldn’t the alumni still enjoy the games if the teams won a little less often and the faculty offices still had telephones?”

Cal Athletics, as an auxiliary of the University, is technically supposed to be self-funding. It’s not. For the last two decades, the University administration has been kicking in an extra few million dollars per year. Another roughly $2 million per year comes directly from student fees. This may come as a surprise to many fans. “We did a survey of the American public in 2005, and basically three out of four Americans believe that big-time sports generate profits for the entire university to use,” says Amy Perko, the executive director of the Knight Commission, which studies intercollegiate athletics and academics. “That’s a myth, and once you break down the tremendous costs of these programs, the public as well as faculty are shocked to find out that’s not the case.”

Even with the subsidies it gets, Cal’s athletic department often hasn’t been able to make ends meet. In four of the past six years, the department has posted a deficit—on average, $6.1 million, against average annual expenses of $57.1 million. The University has always covered those deficits—and before 2007, forgiven them—leading to total “costs to campus,” Barsky says, of as much as $13 million a year.

This too, is par for the course. According to the NCAA, more than 80 athletic programs with Division 1-A football teams ran deficits, and the median deficit was $8 million. Typically, that difference is covered by a subsidy from the school.

For many faculty, that’s no consolation. “[Intercollegiate athletics] is not something that should be paid by the chancellor or student fees,” says anthropology professor Laura Nader, one of the sponsors of the resolution. “I’m teaching a big course with 300 people this spring, and the person who’s best to teach that course can’t do it because the department can’t find the $7,500 to pay him. That’s the issue, as far as I’m concerned. Academics first.”

Athletics isn’t the only campus unit that has run up deficits. Vice Chancellor for Administration Nathan Brostrom, who arrived at Berkeley three years ago and helped write a new campus deficit resolution policy, says that one of the things that amazed him when he first started working on campus was how freely everyone was spending.

“I don’t want to pick on any of my academic friends, but actually you don’t have to pick because they’re fairly widespread,” he says. “They’d have a budget, they’d exceed it, and it would just be wiped off the books.”

Public health, business, optometry, disabled students, recreational sports—they had all run up deficits, had the debts paid, and been forgiven, Brostrom says. Athletics, at least, has the potential to pay back the money, unlike the academic departments, which generally lack revenue streams. And both Brostrom and Athletics Director Sandy Barbour point out that Intercollegiate Athletics ran no deficits in 2007 or 2008—before the downturn in the economy last year led to a $5 million loss in revenues (mainly due to poor ticket sales) and increased costs (mainly due to increased fees for student athletes).

Barbour acknowledges that that doesn’t let athletics off the hook. “For us to miss our mark by $5 million is not acceptable,” she says. “I get that.” She also knows there’s another $6.4 million deficit projected for 2010, which the University will again cover, and the athletics department will at some point have to repay. That could mean that the University will have to reduce the scope of the athletics program (i.e., eliminate teams), or just accept lower standards in terms of performance.

At the end of 1990—a year that also featured a state budget crisis—then-Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien asked a committee to answer three questions about athletics at Berkeley. The main one was: What should the University’s athletics mission be?

A year later, the committee came back to Tien—always a sideline presence at Cal football games—with the task force report equivalent of a lusty “Go Bears!” The committee chair, sociology professor Neil Smelser, wrote in his recommendation: “The Chancellor and Athletic Director should affirm that Cal’s intercollegiate athletic mission is to compete, yearly and across the board, at the top levels of the Pacific Ten conference and in post-season and national championship play.” Rejecting the idea of a dichotomy between athletics and academic life, the committee urged the chancellor to go full bore in pursuing “competitive excellence” in “all dimensions of campus life.”

Nineteen years later, the University fields 27 teams, almost all of them at the highest levels of national competition. In four of the last five years, Cal has finished in the top ten in the Directors Cup standings, which recognize achievement across all intercollegiate sports.

The current chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, is equally committed to the ideal of comprehensive excellence. People now question it, he says, “because everyone wants us to make compromises and admit we really can’t be as good as we are. I don’t accept that.”

Across-the-board superiority makes Cal what it is, Birgeneau insists. “It’s one of the reasons I came to Berkeley. I spent almost all my career at MIT, which is a great place, but MIT consciously was not committed to comprehensive excellence, and instead decided to excel at science and engineering, and some social sciences. I find the comprehensive excellence at Berkeley makes it a much more interesting place.”

As with any bottom-line concern, of course, the problem boils down to two options: cut costs, or raise revenues.

Critics tend to focus on costs, especially in football, many of which seem frivolous. For example: The football team stays in a nice hotel the night before home games and the team travels to away games by chartered plane. Then there’s the matter of head coach Jeff Tedford’s $1.5 million salary.

Barbour counters that what look like excesses are really just the costs of doing business in Division 1-A football. “People can point to what they consider to be excesses in any of our programs,” Barbour says. “I would challenge them to really sit down and look at what our perceived excesses look like compared to some of our competition. Not only in the Pac-10, but nationally. From a comparative standpoint they wouldn’t look like excesses at all.”

The problem is that football is also the biggest money-maker for Cal. The profits, about $12.5 million in 2008, are a crucial part of the athletics budget. Start cutting football expenses, even the seemingly extravagant ones, and you risk losing the competitive edge, Barbour says. If the team becomes less competitive, ticket sales fall, merchandise sales fall, donations fall, and so on. Rather than take a unilateral approach to carving out football excesses, Barbour wants the NCAA to put rules in place that would rein in spending for everyone.

For now, Barbour prefers to concentrate on ways to raise revenues. The Pac-10 conference will be renegotiating its television and media contract, which most observers expect will yield more favorable terms for the campuses. Another boost could come from the Endowment Seating Program (ESP), a complicated financing mechanism whereby money from the sale of seats in the renovated Memorial Stadium, pledged for periods as long as 50 years, will go into an endowment fund. The earnings on the endowment will flow into the general athletics budget. Meanwhile, the University will borrow against athletic revenues to fund the stadium renovation.

By the end of 2009, according to Nathan Brostrom, more than 65 percent of the ESP seats had sold (a few to the Cal Alumni Association in a deal that includes ad space in this magazine), far in advance of expectations. “We have a projected budget of $300 million,” said Brostrom of the stadium retrofit. “We are fortunate in that construction bids are aggressive in this environment and financing rates are near all-time lows.”

Faculty critics are incredulous. Says Barsky: “This is an auxiliary which has never repaid one cent of the $171 million that it has drained from the campus coffers since 1991. That is more than the total shortfall from the state budget that Berkeley suffered this year and generated all the cuts we are enduring. But the plan now is to take out loans for almost half a billion dollars for the stadium project, and rely on this unit to repay it—a unit that operates in the red year after year. What if Intercollegiate Athletics does not manage to bring in enough revenue? Who’s left holding the bag?”

For her part, Laura Nader would like to end Cal’s intercollegiate sports program entirely. She speaks admiringly of the University of Chicago, a premier academic institution that ended intercollegiate football in the 1940s. And she pointedly rejects the notion of comprehensive excellence. “Berkeley excellence is PR,” Nader says. “Chicago’s one of the best universities around, and they don’t have intercollegiate sports. They have sports. That’s the point that’s never made. The Europeans have sports on their campuses, it’s just not intercollegiate.”

Backers of athletics counter that, among other things, intercollegiate sports bring a unity to the campus that’s unique among extracurricular activities. Barbour and Birgeneau both argue that the opening day of football season is a lift for students and a time-honored way for alumni to reconnect with their campus. Birgeneau says that one of the only major differences between Cal and the University of Toronto, where he was president before coming to Berkeley, is the intercollegiate athletics program. He believes it’s one of the reasons that students at Berkeley are more satisfied than their Toronto counterparts. He cites a 2008 survey of 3,400 Berkeley undergraduates: Nearly 94 percent said they were proud to be a student on the campus.

Nader, though, says that’s ridiculous. “They’re more satisfied,” she scoffs. “What’s the evidence? Suicide rate, alcoholism? When I came to Berkeley, you couldn’t get alcohol within two miles of campus. Now weekends are heavy drinking. It’s sad. I know my students better than most because I read their papers. Don’t tell me they’re ‘more satisfied.’”

Nader pointed me to an earlier critic of Cal athletics: author Upton Sinclair, who visited the campus in the early 1900s. “In other parts of the world, when you hear of the ‘classics,’ you think of Homer and Virgil; but in California the ‘classics’ are the annual Stanford-California football game,” the socialist firebrand wrote in a 1923 book called The Goose-step: A Study of American Education. “I asked a student about to graduate what he thought of his classmates, and his answer was, ‘They are a mob of little haters. They hate the Germans, they hate the Russians, they hate the Socialists, they hate the Japs. They are ready to hate the French or the English any time they are told to; and always they hate Stanford.’”

“Beat Stanford” may still be the rallying cry on the Cal campus, but the athletics department under Barbour has generally tried to mirror the diversity and academic aspirations of the University as a whole. She stresses that graduation rates for football players have improved under Coach Tedford and points with particular pride to the recent success of the women’s swimming team: Cal won its first national championship last year, while also peaking in team GPA.

Even football has had its standouts. Alex Mack was a sophomore when George Smoot flipped the coin at the 2006 Cal-Oregon game. A year later, he was already being heavily recruited for the NFL. Mack, though, chose to stay in school and in his senior year he was not only named an All-American at his position, he also won the Draddy Award—the “academic Heisman,” annually presented to the country’s best student football player. Ultimately, Mack was picked in the first round of the NFL draft and now plays for the Cleveland Browns. “That’s what we’re after,” Barbour says. “If that isn’t comprehensive excellence, I don’t know what is.”

The Knight Commission’s Perko, who coincidentally played college basketball at Barbour’s alma mater, Wake Forest, says a recent survey of university presidents suggests the economy may force schools like Cal to cut less popular sports from its roster. She points out that Berkeley’s 27 teams put it among the top universities in the country for broad-based athletics programs, well ahead of the Pac-10 average (22.7) or the SEC average (19.5).

“I think philosophically—not financially, not practically, but philosophically— we’re just a part of this university,” Barbour says. “What should we be about? I think we should be about a large, robust, and diverse athletic program.” Whether or not Cal Athletics would still qualify as “large, robust and diverse” with, say, 25 teams and fewer national champions, is an open question. Like so many debates, it comes down to what we value and what we’re willing to pay for, in both good times and in bad.

Epilogue: In an open letter sent to members of the Academic Senate in October 2009, Athletic Director Sandy Barbour wrote that “dramatic changes in the scope” of Cal’s athletic program, were under careful consideration. “While all options are on the table for FY10–11, eliminating an intercollegiate team is an intense process that can have significant repercussions,” Barbour wrote. “We are undertaking a thorough program review to analyze all of these impacts before making any final decisions on the future shape of the department.” An announcement based on that review was expected as of press time.

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