Berkeley athletics task force ducks engagement, steams onto rocks

Berkeley’s Task Force on Intercollegiate Athletics (TFIA)  has submitted its report  on what to do about an enterprise that soaks up tens of millions of dollars of subsidy each year while the university as a whole is being asked to eat almost $200m of budget cuts (see the TFIA assignment below). It’s appropriate to thank the members for the time they spent on this project. I wish it were possible to recognize their efforts as consequential or useful, but no such luck.  My expectations were modest, but this result dashes even my cautious hopes, and as I know several of the members to be smart people with the best intentions, it saddens me to say so. Eleven members, working for almost a year, have come up with five single-spaced pages of content (no, this is not the executive summary, and it is not a memo boiled down for Donald Trump), and one big table of financials uncritically assembled from IA’s annual NCAA P/L reports.

A bitter irony is the appendix listing (without links to access any of them) five previous TFIAs, from 1991,’92,’99,2000 and 2010. Isn’t a standard definition of insanity “doing the same thing again and again expecting a different result”?

The five pages tell us, first:

Students who participate in sports can and often do learn the value of hard work, commitment, leadership, loyalty and teamwork – qualities that serve them, their families, and their broader communities for the rest of their lives.

Intercollegiate athletics promote socioeconomic and racial diversity at Berkeley.

Intercollegiate athletics generate a broader sense of pride in Berkeley as a whole.

Intercollegiate athletics create a lasting bond to Berkeley among many alumni and help stimulate generous philanthropic giving by those alumni.

The foregoing are presented without a single citation to actual research or, actually, evidence of any kind other than that someone told the task force they were true. (The report lists witnesses and interviewees in an unannotated appendix; we have no idea what any of them said.) The vital “compared to what?” question is nowhere to be seen: just for example, do sports, at about $25,000 per athlete per year net subsidy, generate a hundred times as much pride as, say, the orchestra, which costs only about $300 per musician? Could more racial and economic diversity be obtained for less than $25,000 per head some other way?

A brief gloss on these bromides:

850 students out of about 20,000 participate in intercollegiate sports; everyone else is restricted to a underfunded and overcrowded recreational and physical education program that has been ruthlessly looted of physical and financial resources by IA, so they are learning all those good things mostly some other way. I have been at Cal for two and a half decades and I have never encountered evidence that athletics  generates this “broader sense of pride,” or even much interest, either among students or faculty; what we’re proud of–and we are–has to do with research and teaching, duh. Of course real survey research might clarify this, but the TFIA didn’t find it important to actually find out if what they say is true. Similarly, any real evidence linking sports success of more than two dozen teams at the Division I level to philanthropy that benefits the university is completely missing; never mind the effect of mediocre money teams (football and men’s basketball). What sports booster alumni certainly give to is sports, and I don’t know how much more of that generosity we can afford. Finally, we never hear about any significant philanthropy from alumni with zillion-dollar pro sports contracts: just how grateful are they for the items in the first bullet?

And now [drum roll], action recommendations:

  1. [that someone arrange] a targeted review of IA’s organizational structure and financial controls by an independent, outside party with credibility among the entire campus community.
  2. that governance be improved and lines of communication clarified. Working with the administration, IA should submit an annual budget and a 3-5 year budget.
  3. that the Vice Chancellor Administration and the Vice Chancellor for Finance play a more significant role in the budgetary review process for IA.
  4. that the campus hire outside professionals to manage and optimize the use of the California Memorial Stadium.
  5. that underutilized facilities and assets be identified and reviewed with an eye either to monetizing them or making them newly available to the campus.
  6. that the impact of IA on philanthropy to the entire campus be considered in any analysis of the campus’s net cost or benefit from IA.
  7. that the campus respect all written donor agreements made to support various sports
  8. [that the campus mount] a campaign to provide permanent funding for Athletics.

Anything here not readily available from any airport management book? And no, the full report doesn’t put much more flesh on them; eight wants vaguely described in the language of ineffectual bureaucracy–passive voice (“governance be improved”, “be considered”) and completely aspirational (“play a more significant role”)–all to be done by someone else, sometime.  Did we need a task force to learn that “underutilized facilities and assets [should] be identified and reviewed”?

Most remarkable is the degree to which the TFIA failed to deliver on the charges from the chancellor who appointed them, instead kicking everything down the road or just stepping over it. Their marching orders included:

Specifically, the TFIA should answer the following questions:

  1. For each element of IA’s program, what are the costs and benefits to campus?
  2. Given the costs, benefits and regulatory constraints, what is the appropriate scale and scope for the total program?
  3. In addition to the scale and scope, are other changes, e.g, organizational or structural, needed to achieve financial stability?
  4. How much will the campus need to invest on an ongoing basis in order to sustain IA at this new level?

Where appropriate, the TFIA should benchmark its recommendations to programs at comparable universities…

Not one of these really gets a responsive answer. The incoming chancellor had better be sure her office window is closed when this tome lands on her desk, so it doesn’t blow away.

If there is a takeaway, it is that IA can never balance its books if it is charged for the $18m per year interest charge for the stadium/conditioning center project. Cutting sports to the NCAA Div1 minimum of 14 could save about $10m, but the report retails the familiar assertion that gifts to IA and “the entire campus” would fall by $25m, recognizing how soft this guesstimate is both ways. [update 9/VI/17 Wait, fall by what? contributions to IA last year were less than $20m total! Did this report get a common-sense once-over before release? I checked with Roger Noll, the go-to guy for college athletics economics, and he said “there is no evidence that athletics has any direct effect on academic gifts”. Noll is a Stanford prof but be assured that he does not have an, um…an Axe to grind, right!]

Maybe a real probability of cutbacks would activate a Niagara of giving to the sports program; philanthropy works (for example) for Stanford, but Cal alums still have the vague idea that they paid for a public university with their taxes, even though the state has practically cut us off in recent years. The trend is not encouraging; ticket sales are down almost a third since 2013, and contributions have fallen by a fifth.  I would add that the actual subsidy from campus to athletics, accounting reasonably for the cost of operating, maintaining, and depreciating IA facilities, is about $30m per year, so even if the campus eats the stadium debt, the existing Division I program will cost us more than $10m per year as far as they eye can see.

How did this project fall so short of its aims?

Partly it appears to be just dropping balls. Two task force members are business school profs, one an accounting specialist, but we don’t get more than a handwave at whether and how the financials IA chooses to provide misrepresent the real situation.  Just for example, how is it possible that the exclusive facilities empire IA occupies is maintained (and depreciated?) for a piddling $8m per year?

Partly it results from the task force’s odd decision to operate by consensus, and balance interests instead of finding facts. And from the implicit equivalence of competitive athletics and academics as interests to be served. The TFIA is a mélange of sports boosters–including the athletic director, an Olympic medalist swimmer (yay for her!) whose expertise in any relevant issue here is unclear, and a baseball fan alumnus booster and donor–with administrators and faculty. None of the faculty who have been most engaged and informed in the athletics debates of recent years were included. Of course they can’t reach consensus; that’s why we have majority and minority reports, so we can see the actual points of difference and competing assumptions.

Maybe the 2020 task force will come up with something useful. And maybe the 2017 football team will win the PAC12 championship.

[update: minor edits 9/VI/17]


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.

6 thoughts on “Berkeley athletics task force ducks engagement, steams onto rocks”

  1. You have no idea how heartening this is to read. Knowing that a world-class university can produce a product like this gives me an achievably low bar to clear. I will go to work this morning with a smile in my heart and a song on my lips.

    Too bad about you folks, though. Someone ought to do something about your situation. Maybe a task force could be helpful? Give it some thought.

  2. Can the chancellor simply refuse to accept the report, since it apparently does none of the things the task force was specifically charged to do? Or is that a woeful ignorance of university politics?

  3. Of the top five in alumni giving, only Stanford ever gets past the first round in anything, and that's only because they grant athletic scholarships, while the other four do not. Of the Top10, Ann Arbor and Notre Dame are the only others with an athletic presence…..but….em…..I believe they're also known as excellent schools. So, I remember Kevin Johnson, and I remember that wifebeater Jason Kidd…..but I'm not sure I can name a single other Berkeley athlete. In fact, it had a certain charm that its athletics were as sucky as Harvard's and Yale's, and it was a pleasant surprise when they actually had a good season or produced a pro (like that Asian kid from Harvard who broke Shaquille O'Neal's record for scoring in his first two professional games with the Knicks). I just always kinda thought it was the shining star of what used to be the world's greatest public education system…, above Ann Arbor and Chapel Hill, the greatest public university that mankind had ever invented. You'd think that might suffice. Berkeley teams are supposed to suck. That's why kids want to go there, it's what the best universities do, suck at sports!

  4. It's a bit too late to say it, but the stadium should have been rebuilt in wood, like the quakeproof Japanese pagodas that have been standing for a thousand years. Mike and I told you so.

  5. As usual for O'Hare sports posts, this is the Berkeley variant of a national issue. Big-time college sports is an entrenched tradition in this country that I would compare to our electoral system based on single member districts and plurality-wins. For each: Do other countries do it that way? No (except UK on elections, and we see how great that is). Does everything in this country work that way? No, but a way more than a critical mass does. Would competent designers working from scratch come up with anything like the current system? No way, but so what? Is there going to be fundamental change in our lifetimes? Just maybe, for those in the crowd who are both very young and very optimistic. Does the undersigned have good promising solutions to recommend? Nope.

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