Intercollegiate Athletics

[UPDATE 2: Our resolution passed 3:2 91-68 in a very well-attended meeting. Local coverage here. Woo, hoo!]

The Berkeley faculty will meet  tomorrow afternoon about the Intercollegiate Athletics program.  This is a $65m per year enterprise that is supposed to operate on a self-sustaining basis but instead gets $12m per year in subsidies from various campus sources, and at a time when we are in a really desperate budget situation.  Some colleagues and I are proposing a resolution which you can read here .

Debate will be quite constrained; my 2c, if I can get to the microphone, will be as follows:


This meeting is about values and what kind of university we think we are. The core mission of UC Berkeley comprises scholarship, teaching, and the arts, the dozens of disciplines and media represented in the academic school and department structure.  We do not give courses in, write papers about, or give academic credit for throwing a ball, running really fast, or swimming.  Nor do we have departments or schools of haute cuisine or stamp collecting or stock car racing. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things.

Athletics for everyone advances that mission because sports are fun and health is good. We should have everyone playing sports and exercising. This resolution is about something quite different, namely intercollegiate athletics, which is the faculty and 95% of the students watching the other 5% compete; except insofar as IA has impoverished and looted recreational sports, today’s discussion has nothing to do with “athletics at Berkeley.”

The chancellor is on record as demanding that we be the best at everything we do, but this a terrible guide to action.  We do not offer Chez Panisse cuisine in the dining halls nor dress for class in Ermenogildo Zegna, and we are right not to.  Some things are part of our core mission, some things are in service to that mission, and some are amusements or distractions.

Every Sunday in the newspaper you can see a list of the universities whose football teams are better than ours.  This week, there are 22, and not a single person in this room would jump to any one of them at his or her current salary.  Berkeley is the best public university in the world in many rankings, and the best university overall according to the Washington Monthly; no sports index counts in any of those rankings.  The schools we benchmark against, like Harvard, Yale and Princeton, have I-AA, not I-A, programs.  Our engineering school goes up against MIT, need I say more…..

The campus has borrowed money against athletic profits that have never existed, to build a $125m football palace, booster party venue, and (a sixth of the building) conditioning center for five hundred athletes. The interest on that loan is $6m a year and operating the building will be another $6m, so DIA needs a $30m per year turnaround to protect the academic enterprise from this folly.

  • Meanwhile, the $120m art museum, which is central to our core mission, is stalled for lack of funds and may be a full story smaller than planned if we build it at all.
  • Meanwhile, the other 30,000 students’ and the faculty’s sports facilities are overcrowded, understaffed, and falling apart.
  • Meanwhile, Cal Performances events really are world-class top quality, and for every dollar the campus gives to intercollegiate athletics, we give three cents to Cal Performances.
  • Meanwhile, our classrooms are a disgrace in quality, condition, and number, the worst I’ve ever taught in in the USA.

Intercollegiate Athletics at Berkeley is an auxiliary that we have agreed again and again should be self-supporting, that has agreed to be so, and that has systematically reneged on the deal. A self-supporting DIA can comply with Title IX, and provide the appropriate level and intensity of intercollegiate competition for the best research university in the world.  Please vote for our resolution to put it on this footing.


Title IX is mentioned because football and basketball have been mendaciously hiding behind the skirts of women’s sports, with nonsensical assertions from the administration that our resolution will be the end of Title IX equity.  As I’ve become engaged in this issue, I’ve been astonished at the number of things people believe and assert that are not so, including especially the claim that big-time sports makes money for the academic side of the enterprise.  College presidents and boosters have anecdotes about athletic donors giving to academics, but Bob Frank put paid to this myth years ago with real research; his conclusion is consistent with a lot of published journal articles and refuted by none.


  1. says

    One more source to consider:

    College Sports, Inc., by Murray Sperber. Written in the early 1990s, as I recall, Sperber's investigation (he was a sports writer) revealed that after the top 10-20 schools in basketball or football performance, most sports programs in college in those areas of sport lose money for the institution. And not to put too fine a point on it, but the University of Chicago stopped its organized sports back in the 1930s. It's academic quality and prestige has not suffered in the least.

    As a Rutgers alumnus, I have watched with a wary eye its vast increase in its sports budget and I wonder, apart from the name recognition among younger people out here in the West, whether it has really translated to anything that an academic outreach might not be accomplishing more efficiently, money and growth wise.

  2. Ken Doran says

    The core problem, worth a sentence or two, is one that transcends Berkeley and applies to a hundred or most of our best universities. The highest divisions of football and men's basketball, and a smattering of other sports, have long since evolved into big-money (for adults, not students) professional sports programs inelegantly grafted onto the "extracurricular activity" node of the schools. Confront that fundamental issue on a national basis, or you are wasting your time.

  3. says

    Well, duh. I'd go even a little further than Ken: not only aren't bigtime college athletic self-supporting, they're effectively a school-subsidized set of farm teams for the immensely profitable professional leagues the top athletes go to. (Now there's a source of funding that would be interesting to tap.)

    If the athletics departments have promised to be self-supporting, but aren't, the least they can do in this fiscal crisis is take cuts — primarily big-ticket — comparable to what other areas have taken. Best would be to drop the subsidy outright.

    (Oh, and the chancellor's statement about being the best is simply full of sh*t. If he were insisting on being the best at everything then he wouldn't have slashed the academic side as he did.)

  4. not sold says

    Not sure why the other entertainment sector, the arts, is part of the core mission if top flight athletics are not. I do agree, however, that IA can and should be self sufficient… just like the arts program.

  5. Michael O'Hare says

    The role of the arts other than literature in US liberal education is a big, interesting question that I first wrote about as a sophomore in college. At Cal, we have academic departments of Drama, Music, Art practice, Arts History, Dance, and have for years, as do most landgrant schools, while the Ivies (with exceptions like the Yale Drama School) have refused to grant academic credit for doing art, only for writing about art done by others. The sociology of this tradition is, roughly, that gentlemen do not do, they have things done for them by servants and female family members; science itself was a late addition to the private university curriculum, initially allowed in the door only in safe ghettos like the Lawrence and Sheffield schools.

  6. Ben M says

    Michael, your statement about art at the Ivies is incorrect; Yale gives undergraduate credit for music (both composition and performance), studio art, architecture, theater, and dance. (The dance offerings are a bit thin, which I think is part of a pattern and an interesting one.)

    Good luck killing the DIA subsidies. I don't have the slightest interest in waiting for an "arms treaty" across the athletic division; cut it unilaterally and let the big sports descend a division or two.

  7. KLG says

    Michael: As a product of what has regrettably become a bona fide football factory during the reign (and I use that term advisedly) of my alma mater's current president, welcome to my world. You are such a dreamer. Keep it up, though. You might get through to them. Incidentally, I stayed in the Faculty Club at Berkeley earlier this year while at a conference. I couldn't help but notice the statue of the Football Coach not far from that of the Last Dryad. An interesting juxtaposition, I thought.

    BTW, I just looked at the list of schools ahead of the Golden Bears in the BCS rankings. You may be right that "not a single person in this room would jump to any one of them at his or her current salary" but there might be one or two in engineering who would consider Georgia Tech, since his/her current salary in Berkeley would be worth 10-30% more in Atlanta. Yeah, I know, it's still Atlanta and not Berkeley, but you shouldn't paint with such a broad brush. It's unbecoming.

  8. Warren Terra says

    KLG, O'Hare was painting with a broad brush: certainly professors might move to be closer to family, to collaborators, etc. But none of those schools excel at education or research as does Berkeley.

  9. Joe S. says

    Everybody knows that facts have a liberal bias, and the scholarly enterprise therefore has a liberal bias. College athletics restore some healthy conservative balance to the university.

    This sounds tongue-in-cheek, but I think reflect some sociological reality of universities. Universities exist in a broader society, and there is little in universities that appeals to many elements of the broader society. Sports and vocational training–and to a lesser extent the natural sciences–are about the only aspects of universities that make sense to the voting and funding constituents of universities. (Funding constituents, for state universities, include the legislature.) The business community, in particular, values vocational training, and views athletics as useful vocational training. (Smart jocks do very well in corporate America.) Critical inquiry and preservation of high culture are not particularly valued outside the universities.

    A private university can choose to ignore the voting constituents, and maybe can find alternative funding constituents. A public university cannot. In a democracy, I'm afraid that football is a necessary evil.

  10. says

    Penn has undergraduate majors in fine arts, theater, and architecture, and graduate programs in fine arts, architecture, and music, and offers undergrad classes in music (including performance) and film, though not majors, I think. I'd be very surprised if this wasn't so of other Ivy league schools, too, so I think you're claim about them is clearly wrong.

  11. KLG says

    Oops. My bad. WT, you are right and I was dead wrong about Georgia Tech. According to US News (for whatever their rankings are worth), among graduate (i.e., research) engineering schools Berkeley is ranked 4th with a score of 88 and Georgia Tech is ranked 5th with a score of 86.

  12. Dennis says


    Good luck to you. The tail has wagged the dog for a very long time now.

    The arts have historically been well-represented at the land-grant schools that are also the state's comprehensive university (Cal, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota, etc.) The arts have historically been the poor relations at land grant schools that grew into comprehensive universities from an agriculture/engineering background (Kansas State, New Mexico State, Oklahoma State, that other school in Texas, etc).

    Here on our campus, the master plan called for a performing arts center to be constructed in the 1980s. Our regents cancelled it, saying an Aggie school doesn't need a performing arts center. So here we are in 2009, a comprehensive university with growing drama, music and dance programs and we have an improvised theater, a good small recital hall (600 seats) but no large venue for opera/large scale theater, etc.

  13. Ohio Mom says

    re: Not sold yet's comment: Admittedly, the arts can be entertaining — but plenty of art works are not. In fact, some are downright disturbing. The role of the artist is to show us what is so beautiful or so terrible, that we would not have been able to imagine it ourselves. The arts are a way of knowing. They are as much intellectual exercises as any of the other humanities. That is why they can be part of the core mission in a way that athletics can not.

  14. Dennis says

    To expand on Ohio Mom's thought about the arts. On the list of disturbing works are Picasso's Guernica, Karel Husa's Music for Prague: 1968, if you choose to listen to it properly, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck, and the list goes on. In theater, you could list Miller's The Crucible and Death of a Salesman. I don't recall who wrote Twelve Angry Men, but it's a powerful play when cast well. With the exception of the Stravinsky, these things are not audience faves, but they're valuable works nonetheless.

    And congratulations to Michael on getting this passed. Here's hoping your adminstration listens, but I'm betting they won't.

  15. KLG says

    "Our resolution passed 3:2 in a very well-attended meeting. Woo, hoo!"

    Congratulations! Maybe you can lead the rest of us out of this NCAA/CFA/BCS darkness.

  16. Benny Lava says

    Since we are on the subject, consider this: most big time colleges fund their entire athletic department through primarily the football and basketball programs. Most other programs lose money. In a way, it is the (very often poor) black athletes who play football and basketball that bring in the revenue that then funds money losing programs like women's crew. So in a way college athletics is a transfer of wealth from poor black men to rich white women. Is that what title nine had in mind? I believe Frank DeFord has made this argument quite convincingly before.

    On the other hand, perhaps the problem is that Cal's football team has never won a mythical National Championship. Look at other public schools like the University of Michigan; theirs is an athletic program that is self funded and in the black because, despite their current woes, a historically dominant football or basketball team brings in money that can fund stadium renovation and women's lacrosse teams.

  17. Ken Doran says

    Some athletic departments run surpluses, some deficits; ditto for football programs specifically. Obviously that can change within a school from year to year. The core problem — amounting to an original sin, in my opinion — transcends those variations. It is that big-money de facto professional sports have been hybridized into college extracurricular activities. That is a bizarre and irrational way to arrange things, and creates paradoxes that can be reshuffled but not resolved. This odd structure has become so ingrained in this country that it almost seems to the people involved like it must be in the constitution somewhere.

  18. Barry says

    Thirding Michael and Ken, a *few* universities have profitable big-time sports programs(20? 30?). And I still won't believe half of them who claim it, because they aren't audited, and there's a zillion ways to shuffle money around (I went to the University of Michigan, and they have incredible semi-pro facilities, which must have cost a lot to build, and vast amounts to maintain and run).

  19. Allen Knutson says

    As an ex-Berkeley professor, I commend you, sir.

    A Swarthmore professor told me about her experience shutting down the football program there some years ago. (It may be back; I don't know.) First the proposed funding was cut, and the football coach said "If that's all we get, we won't _have_ a football program!" and then his bluff was called. She told me she received death threats from septuagenarian alumni who, of course, had never played football.

  20. says

    Seconding what Barry says. Without a thorough audit, it's easy to make the profit/loss numbers whatever you want them to be. (Professional sports franchises play the same game in reverse — they "lose money" while other enterprises associated with the team and the stadium make it hand over fist.)

  21. Dennis says


    I had lunch with a member of our faculty athletics committee. According to the NCAA, 20-some DIAs operated in the black last year. That's up from the teens a few years ago. However, this count is based on numbers that excluded capital costs and included university subsidies. His best guess is that 5-6 BCS schools consistently have their DIAs in the black, funded through men's football and basketball. The other sports are consistent losers.

  22. Michael O'Hare says

    …excluded capital costs? That's a novel accounting concept: "our hotel is profitable if you ignore the cost of the hotel."

  23. Fred C Dobbs says

    This is not about university expense, but about revenue, and good publicit. 'Branded Nation,' published years ago details why losing money in the short term, pays in the long term. The investment in a winning football team attracts money from non-alumni, who they have found, donate more than alumni do to their schools. Further, behavioral science has found that identifying with winners makes one feel better, and presumably better about giving to the winners' universities. (In fact the testosterone in men who backed McCain declined while those who backed Obama rose in the hours after the last presidential election results were announced.) Wayne Valley, whose name is on the Life Sciences Building, didn't go to Cal, but owned part of the Raiders, and was convinced that the pursuit of excellence in all things was good, and Berkeley was a place that did this. Haas Gym, and Haas School of Business are the results of the generosity of men who valued Cal Athletics highly, even though the won-loss record in the major sports was not always good. Warren Hellman, Don Fisher, and Ric Cronk all swam for Berkeley and have given millions to partially-endow the swimming programs. You may be unfamiliar with Cal Swimmers, but they are generating good will for Berkeley world wide in the only pages of the media that are factual and display the results of merit. You are blessed with the power to argue, but your argument has no basis in fact, and is merely a theory searching for facts. You seek to invite, encourage, and arouse others to this issue, as if you are interested in an intellectually honest debate, but you haven't gone about it that way. Do you have the "big picture" (the financial view) of the university in mind? Do you really have the welfare of all students in mind? Have you run an organization that is faced with the task of generating funds to pay its bills? What sort of experience do you have? Are you some busy-body seeking 15 minutes of fame opening a very old issue? Virtually no one has followed Chicago's 1940 utopian decision to drop intercollegiate athletics, because it is, in the real world, not the prudent, rational way to go. Ask yourself, Mr. O'Hare, have you donated much to your Alma Mater? Have you donated any to your employer? If the answer to both is 'no,' you are unhappy, having no gratitude for what you have been given. Good Luck with your next 'stir up the pot' subject. How about sex, religion, or politics? There are a lot of opinions looking for facts in those areas.