Intercollegiate athletics (IA) continues to be a sore spot at Berkeley and at other schools caught up in the positional arms race wherein school A spending on sports for a few scholarship athletes is determined by the willingness of other schools B,C,… in its conference to throw more educational resources on the pyre. For example, tying our intercollegiate athletics budget to how much Phil Knight gives to Oregon. No matter how much of this one-upping goes on, of course, the number of conference champions is one, but coaches, athletic directors and media outlets make out very nicely, thanks.
The California Alumni Association, which publishes California magazine, has commendably stepped away somewhat from the tub-thumping for big-time sports alumni associations traditionally take as their role, and published a piece that at least recognized the issue, though it fell somewhat short of Pulitzer-grade hard-hitting analysis.
For Homecoming weekend this fall, though, the CAA has set up a rather strange event, in which the athletic director, Sandy Barbour, alone on the stage, will be interviewed by a reporter about whether Cal can afford athletics. I have never heard the head of an organizational unit argue that her program should be smaller, but I suppose anything can happen.
Now, alumni association events can legitimately take many forms, including cheering for the football team in the stands, but one of them is to share the real expertise and knowledge of the university community with the critical, demanding, and educated alumni we have been teaching. Perhaps Christina Romer, talking about economic policy and her time in the White House; that sort of thing.
Recall that “the issue” about intercollegiate sports at Cal is the $13m it drains from our educational enterprise this year, and the $171m it has cost over the last decade, even though it’s supposed to be self-supporting, and the title of the event is about cost, not cool new plays for the football team or our prospects in basketball.
What is Barbour’s expertise on this question? I don’t know her, don’t think I’ve ever met her, so I only have the record to go on, but it’s far from legitimating her as a source of knowledge on the question on the table. Two different review panels this year determined that spending in IA is out of control, and indeed its losses have grown from breaking even for two years “only” $7.4m in 2007-8 to $13m this year and no sign of better results to come. No less an authority than, um, Sandy Barbour says “For us to miss our mark by $5 million is not acceptable. I get that.” Athletics at Cal is supposed to be governed by a principle of “comprehensive excellence,” but physical education for all students, once a jewel in the campus tiara, and recreational sports, are far from excellent, with staff slashed, facilities overcrowded and falling apart, and students getting overweight and watching the world on computer and TV screens.
Comprehensive excellence for “scholar-athletes” famously, as the compound implies, comprises learning and sports, but under Barbour’s administration, in the big-money sports, we’re playing .250 ball. The men’s basketball team were (i) PAC-10 champion (yay, Bears!), but (ii) the graduation rate of its American players was 0 (zero) – oops. The football team (iii) finished in the bottom half of the conference and a nothing bowl no-one watched, even though (iv) its graduation rate is less than two-thirds. And those rates ignore players who leave the school eligible, whether they graduate somewhere else or not. Perhaps the contract Barbour negotiated with the coach, that offers him $20,000 for GPA increases, and ten times that for a bowl appearance, has something to do with this?
Comprehensive excellence also comprises character and discipline, but the football team is falling a little short there as well: because the players can’t be trusted not to have late dates and drink on Friday nights, they have to be imprisoned in a hotel before home games (at IA expense, of course). [A flack for IA told me with a straight face that this was because they had to have meetings: I have been around and about on our lovely campus on Friday nights and as you might expect, the number of empty classrooms is myriad. Meetings?]
Barbour’s business acumen is further clouded by the incredibly foolhardy half-billion-dollar stadium renovation and so-called High Performance conditioning center (two thirds of which is coaching offices and booster party venues), being built with borrowed money for which the campus is on the hook , all on the promise that a $73m company that has lost more than $10m in each of the last three years will somehow figure out how to make $25m a year – a jump of almost half of their budget – to retire the bonds.
Of course, “Can A afford X?” would seem to entail asking what A has to give up for X, and Barbour might not be completely hip to what $13m could buy in the way of education and research. I hope she will explain that we are building only half of our new art museum because we couldn’t raise the money in cash, paid up front, while the sports palace rises from its excavation on credit, and that the $171 million in accumulated IA subsidies is about what that half a museum would have cost.
No, I don’t think Barbour is close to being a considerable source on the question of big-time sports and their cost to Berkeley. As a manager, she’s obviously not very good at what she does in the first place, and from inside her institutional bubble, where she teacheth not, neither doth she research, her knowledge of the effect of the money she is draining from our main business is no more than that of an average Berkeley administrator with a narrow mandate. We could learn as much from the dining hall manager.
I have to be in an all-day meeting in Sacramento that day, but I hope a lot of alumni who care more about the university than the BCS rankings will at least show up and push hard for some real straight talk.
[update 12/IX: some figures corrected; ht Brian Barsky]