When it rains, it pours. Two days after President Yudof humiliated himself and the university he heads, drove the faculty into a seething rage that has not abated, demonstrated the complete incompetence of his public affairs staff, and thus aggravated a sense that the rest of the pricey president’s office talent is maybe not a bunch of superstars, the WSJ reveals a prima facie case of chronic educational malpractice at Berkeley. Apparently we have close to 3000 alumni who learned (from us?) that the most important thing they can do for Cal now is to buy a fifty-year football ticket for the price of a small house.
The athletic program is a running sore of waste and misplaced priorities. To be fair, a lot of harsh and completely unfair things have been said about Cal football, and I want to recognize that football teaches the sportsmanship of fair competition against worthy opponents [we won our first two games by 52-13 and 59-7] and steady, consistent performance when the going gets tough (from a lofty #6 ranking, we lost to unranked Oregon last week 42-3). And our scholar-athletes are just that: our football coach, the highest-paid civil servant in California, gets more than half of his players to graduate in six years (53%) and there’s one Pac-10 team that’s worse, so there. Many men’s basketball players graduate, too, almost a third, actually. OK, sarcasm aside: big-time intercollegiate athletics (which is mostly football and basketball) has nothing to do with the core or even peripheral purposes of a university. Exercise, sports, and conditioning for all students are important; watching a football team in a seat or in front of television set is irrelevant, not our concern. Anyway, the Bay Area has two perfectly adequate professional fooball teams for people who want to watch minds being damaged rather than improved.
Nevertheless, the campus illegally gives intercollegiate athletics about $10m per year (intercollegiate athletics is required to be self-supporting), about half of what the faculty is giving back in furloughs, and it is building a $100m conditioning center (remember the tree-sitters? the trees were the least of it) for the exclusive use of about 500 athletes, or about $10,000 per year each. The excuse for this has long been that a winning football team brings net wealth to the university generally, but my colleague Brian Barsky has looked into this and found that the evidence points the other way: college sports supporters give to competitive athletics, period, and a IA program is a cost-center except at schools with minimal academic pretensions. One might ask, so what if it does make money? We could probably make a fortune with a modeling agency renting out good-looking undergraduates who got a custom-greased ride through their academics and beauty scholarships instead of pay; would that make it a good idea? It’s about as mission-relevant as our football program.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking any of this has anything to do with students playing sports. Those 500-odd favored “scholar-athletes” are a coddled and isolated minority among 25000 (for example, they get first dibs at course enrollments while ordinary students can’t get into required courses for their majors) with segregated dorms, free hotel rooms the night before home games (really!), and an exclusive tutoring service. Sports and exercise for everyone else is what you can grab in decaying, overcrowded facilities, sharing in the devastating funding cuts that are tearing enormous holes in our main business (we had a Vice-Provost for Teaching until this year, but no more). I know an athletic scholarship is “the only way some of these kids can go to college,” but how many scholarships could we give to real scholars if these miseducated alumni gave to the university instead of a proprietary semi-pro sports business? And isn’t there a difference between “being physically present in proximity to a college” and “going to college?”
Now we do have other auxiliary enterprises that could be called entertainment, and a comparison is instructive. Cal Performances, for example, an internationally-ranked first-class no-compromise presenter which brings world-class art to campus; and a lively, innovative art museum/film archive that hasn’t been able to raise enough money for a building that won’t fall down on its visitors and the art in the next earthquake. There is no academic department of passing, dribbling, coping with brain damage, play-calling, or tackling; not even sports management. But we teach art history, music, dance, art practice, and drama. The arts are at the core of a great university’s mission, intercollegiate sports are not, and every single concert at Cal Performances is a better concert than any Cal football game is a football game: it’s Red Sox-Yankees playoff level stuff, every night.
Cal Performances’ annual campus subsidy is a twentieth of what we waste on intercollegiate sports.