Art, sports, and the decline of a great university

Another couple of shoes have dropped in the story of screwed-up values and national humiliation at Berkeley.  The good news: readers will recall that the faculty senate passed a resolution demanding that subsidies to the intercollegiate athletics program stop going up, and quickly go back to zero (the accumulated debt of this program, which is supposed to be self-supporting – like the parking garages –  over the last decade is about $170m but most of it was just forgiven as a present from the new chancellor in 2007, so we ate it in reduced academic funding).  Projections for the current year are for a budget of about $60m, and a loss of $6.4m plus a campus subsidy of $6m. I should say that it is extremely difficult to get coherent and complete financial information about athletics. When we see some, I will be able to present better figures; we know some athletics-only costs are not included in this budget.

Note that we are talking here only about letter athletes, some on scholarship, competing with other college teams.  Among a student body of about 30,000, there are between 500 and 900 of them.  Every athletic activity for the other 29,100 except sitting in seats watching games, from throwing a frisbee to pickup or intramural basketball, is not covered by this program (and quietly starving in degrading and shrinking facilities).

The athletic department (DIA) is flogging long-term seat subscriptions for football to pay for a stadium renovation that will cost about $300m and will begin next year.  The sole function of the stadium is to have six football games a year, though there is a perfectly nice stadium down the road, with convenient rapid transit access, that the Raiders never use on Saturdays (there might be some conflicts to resolve with baseball in September).

DIA is already building something called a Student Athlete High Performance Center, which is about a sixth that (exclusively for the lucky 900), half football offices and facilities, and another sixth party venue for players, donors and boosters, which will cost about $136m.  As I understand it, this was a requirement to keep our $5m 3m/yr  [21/XI: the last $2m are bonuses he will not hit this year] football coach, who has brought the team all the way to the top of the bottom half of the PAC-10, and to number 25 in the BCS rankings this week (AP and Coaches, not so much, but we did get a few votes). [UPDATE 21/XI: the sarcasm in the previous sentence has been confounded by the football team; walkback here.)

We are paying for these projects with bonds backed by the campus as a whole that will cost about $31m per year to retire.  DIA proposes that it will find this money and close the $12m deficit from new contributions and ticket sales, a rosy expectation of almost tripling ticket sales and gifts, from$25m for ’09-10 to  $68m, every year for two decades.  Every penny by which they fall short will come out of the teaching and research activity of the campus.  The total exposure from this plunge is about $13,000 per faculty member per year, well more than the furlough salary we left on the table this year.

Let us now reflect on the following, admiringly quoted by our athletic director in a bunch of FAQs distributed just before the senate meeting this month:

The fundamental mission of a university is academic in nature. Higher education institutions provide educational opportunities, promote personal growth, and generate and disseminate knowledge. College athletics must adhere to and support the institution’s academic mission in all its activities, including providing students with opportunities to succeed academically.

There is no department of football throwing, blocking, running really fast, or swimming at Cal, but we do have academic departments of art, art practice, music, drama, and dance.  We have a museum/film archive that is at least as dangerous seismically as the stadium and until yesterday, a plan to replace it with a new one for about $200m.  But when it comes to the academic mission, we do not rush off carelessly spending borrowed money on fantastic promises of new revenues; we demand that departments have the money in hand, and our thousands of alumni apparently would rather give to the stadium projects [what did we teach them??!!], so the museum plan is dead in the water.

The museum story has another angle, however, because the museum has a collection worth about $750m, nearly all of which is not displayed.  I had a chat with the new director a few months ago about selling some stuff no-one but a curator ever sees so the rest of us could see more, and he explained that if he did that, no museum would ever lend us anything. This is because the art museum directors have decided to make it an ethical principle that art in any museum should stay there forever, an accounting principle that those assets should be completely invisible in their balance sheets, and a curatorial principle that art eternally invisible to you and me  in a storage vault (more than 90% for any large museum) is just fine that way.