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.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

17 thoughts on “Art, sports, and the decline of a great university”

  1. Michael,

    I'm really sorry, and for a former UCLA student to be sorry for Berkeley means the situation's really bad. We just hired a new president here, and during the campus visit I asked each of them about intercollegiate athletics. Our athletics department is also supposed to be self-supporting, but is receiving sizable subsidies from the academic side like your is.

    We had five candidates, and I got basically the same rah-rah, nothing unites the Univer$ity and it$ $upporter$ like intercollegiate athletics. So I expect that when we reach the five year point and our athletics department is still being subsidized from the academic side, we'll just suck it up and forgive that debt too.

    They won't admit that in terms of student retention, there are many better places we could put the money than down the NCAA rathole. Our marching band and its auxiliaries provide a tie to the campus for nearly as many students as the athletics department for a miniscule fraction of the cost.

    I don't understand museum curators at all. There need to be some controls on the disposition of the collection, but that's what Boards of Trustees are for.

  2. Michael: As a graduate of the university that produced the LeConte brothers, who were instrumental in founding the University of California, I share your outlook. Perhaps 20 university athletic programs (including that of the Leconte brothers' alma mater) finish in the black every year, but even they receive substantial subsidies from student fees and benefit from ridiculously lax accounting rules. Maybe the post-Prop 13 decline of Berkeley will wake up a few people. But I doubt it. Football rules!

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

  3. I am reminded of a BC comic in which one character asks, "why is it that we pay our athletes big bucks and we pay our scientists peanuts?" To which the second character responds, "would you buy a ticket to see a scientist?"

    This issue also makes me think of the recent news regarding David Nutt and the scientific advisory board in the UK. The professors might know better, but the executives may ignore the experts in favor of the democratic majority.

  4. Good comment about museums and their invisible collections. While the Art Institute of Chicago (which used to offer free admission) raises its ticket price to $18 per person, per visit, they can't consider (I'm told) selling even one item in its permanent collection because then donors will never give them any more works of art. There has to be some way for those collections to earn their keep and make the museums more accessible to non-rich visitors. Rent the works of art? have a time limit on how long a work stays in the collection, after which it can be sold?

  5. How does selling vaulted art to a few rich people make it more visible?

    How does selling it assist future university scholars who can be granted access to a vault, but not necessarily, to a Wall Street trader's living room?

    I am not certain the point that a football stadium will be empty most of the time makes you forward yardage…

    After all, most classrooms and halls are empty most of the time too.

  6. koreyel,

    I can't speak to any campus but my own, but unless you're suggesting we go to offering classes 24/7, your argument about classrooms being empty "most of the time" doesn't hold here. You can find a room before 9 AM fairly easily, and after 4 PM it's not difficult, but if you're trying to schedule a classroom that you don't have squatter's rights to between those hours, forget it.

    If you compare the occupancy rates for the Berkeley classrooms and the football stadium, I'm quite certain that you'll find the stadium lagging way behind.

  7. Your details may be Berkeley-specific, but the issues apply with variations to hundred or so schools on the big-time-football treadmill, heavily overlapping with our best public and private universities. If I had the franchise to redesign the system I would severely de-professionalize "college" sports; but I find it hard to dredge up any optimism. This strange symbiosis (some might argue for a different term) has taken very deep root from sea to shining sea. Hawai'i too. The museum stuff is an interesting topic as well, albeit ony very tangentially related.

  8. A minor quibble: You can't play big time football on natural grass two days in a row. The Saturday-Sunday pairing you suggest would tear up the field, so I doubt the City of Oakland (co-owners of the stadium) would go for it.

  9. JB: People who donate works of art to museums should insist on display or return. The example is the doggie on embarrassing permanent display in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, as a condition of the Poussins etc which a rich spinster also donated: and she hired the sort of lawyers who could make the condition stick. No doggie, no Poussins.

  10. The data the professors present show that the football team makes an enormous profit and the basketball team also is in the black, but they don't make enough revenue to subsidize all the other non-revenue sports teams.

    The answer, according to the professors, is to continue to have football and basketball subsidize the other sports, but to cut back on expenses so that intercollegiate athletics in general is revenue-neutral.

    I see the problem, but I don't understand the solution. Why is Berkeley running a semi-professional football team, with "student"-athletes who are academically underqualified compared to normal Berkeley students? Why is it the football team's responsibility to support the crew team? Why do normal student-athletes, for example swimmers and field hockey players, get the same deluxe professional sports facilities that the semi-professionals on the football team get?

    Wouldn't it be better to stop running professional sports teams with professional sports facilities, at the cost of over $100,000 per athlete per year, and instead offer a modest subsidy for modest sports teams for actual students?

  11. The NCAA truly is the Military-Industrial Complex of higher education. Not intrinsically evil, just incredibly expensive and priority distorting.

  12. Cardinal is correct. The dirty but not so hidden secret is that most of the student-athletes would never have been admitted to the university in the first place but for their athletic talent and are taking up the places of the persons who were academically superior but physically less gifted. Robert Hutchins got it right at the University of Chicago and the U of C's reputation as a world class university was enhanced by the decision. I have little sympathy for Professor O'Hare's lament over finances, as he seems to believe that the rest of the University is taking a hit rather than the taxpayers, who fund the university.

  13. I have a lot of sympathy for Professor O'Hare. The taxpayers have decided how much to fund the university, and now the university has to decide how to allocate the funds. Apparently some of the taxpayers' money will go to build a $300 million football stadium and a $136 million athletic palace; meanwhile professors get their salaries cut and classrooms deteriorate.

    I would prefer a different model, where the university did not run semi-professional sports teams at all, and where real student-athletes played their sports without $100,000 subsidies and athletic palaces.

  14. Great University? Dumpster Muffin comes to mind perched atop her tree. Bezerkly is an insane asylum.

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