I have been fairly tough on Berkeley’s chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, in this space in the past, and this obliges me to give him a shout-out for the very tough call he just made to control the financial bleeding of the school’s intercollegiate athletics (IA) program. Following a faculty vote to put this program on a self-sustaining basis and two task force reports over the last year, he cut five teams last week including rugby, baseball, gymnastics, and lacrosse. Intercollegiate athletics currently costs the extremely hard-pressed campus about $11m a year and his public commitment is to reduce this to $5m within four years, which will require not only downgrading these teams but also real cost controls in the big-time sports of football and men’s basketball.
This is not all I would have hoped for, or have advocated, but as dozens of university presidents have admitted, the pressure of athletic booster alumni for more and more winning teams is enormous, expensive, and relentless. And not just alumni: state school boosters include plain fans, especially football fans, with no interest in their teams’ schools’ academics, and they vote, and they have friends in high places. This cannot have been an easy decision for Birgeneau, who is personally a big sports fan (and nothing wrong with that), as he is being beat about the head and shoulders by a vocal, influential, group of donors, politicians, and heavy hitters in the business community, the press, the blogosphere, and among the faculty and students.
This train isn’t at its destination yet, and plenty of switches down the line may yet be set the wrong way, but it is on the right track and Birgeneau is now in a small group of college presidents who are courageously resisting a ruinous positional arms race none of them wants but few will stand up to. Good for him.