New game plan for Berkeley athletics

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.

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.

31 thoughts on “New game plan for Berkeley athletics”

  1. But cutting baseball, really? Since the 1890s, Cal has had a baseball team. It is embarrassing that the top-ranked public university in the country could not find enough $ in the cushions somewhere to keep a sport that had survived 120 years. Why can't Jeff Kent and some of the lesser alums donate here and there…? The only position this goes is down.

  2. I think it's a lot more embarrassing that the top-ranked etc. cut its new art museum in half for lack of the money it's poured into IA over the last decade. I'm sure we welcome gifts to cover the costs of any teams donors want badly enough to support (within the constraints of Title IX; a baseball team requires women's teams with an equal number of players), should any fans wish to step up.

  3. Rollah, I'm a proud Berkeley grad (PhD '97), and I'm embarrassed the place has an intercollegiate athletics program at all.

  4. I disagree with Rollah's simplistic summary "The only position this goes is down." The UCB Chancellor's courageous decision (and I agree with Mike O'Hare on this, both on his previous toughness and on his current support) might be exactly what is needed at this moment. Maybe it will force out into the open more donors to keep baseball going… Rollah, will you now contribute? Do you know people who would? People who like baseball should donate to baseball. Personally, I don't feel at all strongly about baseball, so I don't like my dollars going with an undue bias to that or any other IA programs. I donate to the Arts and the Humanities, areas in which Berkeley is also very strong, but that are vastly underfunded by comparison.

    How is it "embarrassing"? (Surely you can get over that!) Wouldn't it be more embarrassing if Berkeley were allowed to collapse as an academic center, for lack of interest in its intellectual excellence? Or more embarrassing that it should sink to become a second-rate university? This is simply a question of the Chancellor at last getting the current priorities right — temporary priorities, perhaps, but none the less very urgent ones. This is a sink-or-swim situation. It's also a matter of whether we consider Berkeley from the state, national, or international perspective. Berkeley has just been (once again) voted the top school in the USA for its graduate programs — its research programs, the ones that undertake active research and teach young researches how to research. At Berkeley we don't just teach knowledge, we create it and teach people how to create it — in all disciplines, scientific and artistic. What is worked out here gets taught elsewhere. This is the most solid basis for UCB's genuine national and international reputation. No one in Paris, London, Berlin, Rome, Moscow, New Delhi, or Tokyo thinks of Berkeley as a center for baseball; but people there definitely know of Berkeley as a superb intellectual center, an educational beacon, a cutting-edge research powerhouse.

    Until now, the Chancellor's discretionary funds have been subsidizing a financially deficient athletics and sports program (that has little international stature) — and the subsidy has averaged 11 million dollars a year for many years. By comparison with the important intellectual and artistic disciplines in which Berkeley excels, this is an unacceptable bias at this time (or at any time, I would argue). What point is there in keeping baseball going if UC Berkeley as a whole is "going down" — as it inevitably must in the present situation, without some severe control on these oversubsidized IC sports programs — programs that hardly even benefit the vast majority of UCB students?

    Berkeley is a world-class university that has some first-class athletics and sports teams. It is not — and I think it should not be — a world-class sports facility that also incidentally has the reputation of having had more Nobel Prizes than any other US campus — not to mention the Field Prizes, and all the highly distinguished awards in the Humanities. If Berkeley's academic programs sink, there will be no sports programs left at all.

    This reality check forces me, at least, to the conclusion that we need to accept to pay higher state taxes in California, so that the state can support the UC system better. But that all depends on electing people in November who agree with the principle of financial support for college education, and who agree that investment in the education of California's youth is a financial investment in California's financial health — and its international leadership — in the future.

  5. They are only cutting things you don't care about so far. That is always easy to applaud.

  6. First, among other things Berkeley has one of the strongest rugby traditions in the US, and it is a tragedy that it should be shut down. Second, although I applaud your vigorous defense of the academic mission of the university, and also applaud your argument that too much money was spent to make Cal a university with a strong high profile athletics program, I think you overlook the value that athletics can have for a well-rounded student. Is it wrong to suggest that physical fitness is a positive attribute, and that athletic competition is an activity that brings out the best in people? as well as the worst, of course, but what exactly doesn't? I think that your vision of the mission of the university is too narrow, and that by cutting these programs (mostly not marquee athletics, except for rugby, where Cal is a perennial champion; I wonder if there is something more to that story?) the campus is depriving many students of an opportunity to test their limits and strive to improve themselves? these are not scholarship sports at most places, although maybe they are at Cal (except baseball), so while the facilities, staff and equipment cost money, these don't seem like ways to save a lot of money. I wonder how much donor money will be lost from alumni who played these sports and will not be happy to see this happen?

    Sorry, this is a bit disjointed. I think my main point is that athletics and sport is a fundamentally positive experience for many, and this narrow academmics only approach to the mission of a college is wrongheaded. Of course you can go to far in emphasizing sports (and many, if not most, DivI universities do), but the approach described above does not seem like a good one to me. Just the $0.02 from an old rugger, tho (not a Cal alum, btw)

  7. When you cut money loosing women sports, you have to cut money making or break even men's sports to stay in compliance with Title IX.

  8. Paul: I don't recall Michael ever denying that "physical fitness is a positive attribute", but he has pointed out in the past how pouring money into intercollegiate athletics is a very expensive way to promote fitness among the small fraction of the student population who actually participate.

    My own transformation from a scrawny kid to a physically fit adult occurred during my undergraduate years, not thanks to an intercollegiate athletics program but despite it–if you consider that the money spent on stadiums and parking lots and marketing and staff could have been spent on things that promote fitness among all students, like swimming pools and weight rooms and ball fields and bike lanes and yoga classes.

  9. From my perspective as an academic product of my state university football factory, this can only be a good thing. But Sebastian has a good point. Football scholarship limits have decreased from "unlimited"(Alabama had more than 100 players on scholarship during the glory years of Bear Bryant) to something like the current 85. If Division I schools really want to cut costs, getting that number down to 50 would really work. Now if the University of California (all campuses) can rein in the extortionate Nature journals, things will really be looking up!

  10. Surely this is meant as facetious commentary? A $5 million/year subsidy for commercialized sports entertainment at Cal while core academic functions continue to be defunded can only indicate a failure of priorities.

  11. Paul, I very much appreciate the value of athletics to producing well-rounded and healthy people, which is why I deplore the trashing of what used to be a model intramural, recreational, and physical education program at Cal for all its tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff. Sports for everyone has been one of the myriad regrettable casualties of spending too much money on intercollegiate sports for a few doers and lots of watchers. Cutting recreational sports, not cutbacks in IA, is what has deprived "many students of an opportunity to test their limits and strive to improve themselves"; retrenching in IA is depriving very _few_ students (there are only about 850 letter athletes on campus altogether) of an opportunity to compete at a national level while being in college, but certainly not preventing even them from running, jumping and throwing things and getting good at it.

  12. Just to update my comment – rugby is being "cut" in the sense that the university will no longer fund it, but the team (which has been a net positive financially) will still exist, supported by donations and team fees. It will lose its high profile coach Jack Clark (coached USA rugby). So rugby is better off than some of the other sports on this list. Ed, of course you don't have to play intercollegiate sports to be fit, that is not what I am saying. Nor did I accuse Michael of saying that it isn't important, I think I was mashing together his position with Davitt Moroney's above. My opinion is that sport is an essential part of a college environment, although I certainly don't think it needs to be a huge and expensive part.

  13. I see this mostly from the perspective of a mother with bright children who are not athletes. I enjoy watching sports, indeed, I grew up in a sports obsessed family, but I am hard pressed to find rational arguments why a university should sustain money losing sports teams even as it cuts prized academic programs. In addition, every athletic team that is cut means that there will be more slots for students who will earn their way to Berkeley through academic achievement. Don't try to pretend that even athletes on teams not destined for professional status have the same stats as other students: My nephew's girlfriend in a state other than California received a complete scholarship to UC Berkeley as a result of gymnastics prowess. She lost the scholarship as soon as she sustained an injury, ended up not going to a four year college, and is quite happy as a gymnastics coach. Her fate was not a loss to Berkeley.

    I think creative people who love collegiate sports should start coming up with alternative programs that are self-sustaining, and that, frankly, don't have and should not get tax-exempt status.

  14. Regarding the fitness issue: concentrating gazillions of resources on elite athletes does nothing to promote true fitness for the masses. A club can promote participation by all levels of athletes and allows for mixing between the truly good and the mostly just interested. Even I took up a sport in college on a club level. It's also a joke at a lot of schools that elite athletics is a part of the academic environment. Although I am sure this differs a lot from school to school, my experience was that relatively few students attend big time athletic events — it's the networks that really sustain these activities. Indeed, many "ordinary" students resent pampered athletes as much as faculty do.

  15. Michael,

    Thanks for your response. Of course there is a great deal to be thought about here, and your point is a good one. And I basically agree that if everything is being cut in these tough times, athletics should be no exception. My only point was that some commenters (and to be fair, this doesn't seem to be your position) feel that athletics shouldn't be a part of the mission of a university. I disagree with that, and I also think that intercollegiate as opposed to intramural and recreational sport has an important role in the social fabric of the university as well as in the lives of athletes. I basically agree that Cal and Stanford in particular have moved into a situation where the athletics programs (especially football and basketball) have become entities similar to the big time athletics programs at less academically oriented schools, to the detriment of the school in some ways (both financially, and in the inevitable scandal that follows entry into that arena).

  16. Can any of you people who think an athletic program is an essential part of a strong university tell me what the win loss records in football and basketball were last year for MIT and Cal Tech?

  17. Paul, why and how are intercollegiate sports important to the mission of a university? To MIT and Cal Tech, add the University of Chicago, nearly any highly ranked liberal arts college, and even Harvard or Yale and most of the UC campuses. How would these institutions be made better (or worse) as a result of increasing or decreasing their intercollegiate athletic programs? Just because we have become programmed to see sports as some kind of unifying social experience doesn't mean that other activities, including intramural sports, couldn't take the place of sports at far less cost to the institution, as well as greater fairness to non-athlete students.

  18. So far as I know, MIT still holds the record for fielding teams in the largest number of different NCAA sports — they're just nearly all at the club or Division III levels — crew is the one exception that comes to mind.

    If you actually value participation it seems like that'd be the route to go.

  19. Rayl,

    MIT is NCAA Division III, Men's basketball was 22-5 in 2009-10. Football was 1-8

    CalTech is also D-III, but doesn't play football. Their men's basketball team had a perfect record last year 0-25.

    The big distinction between D-I and D-III is that D-III schools don't have 'athletic' scholarships. I'd be perfectly happy if NCAA D-I and D-II schools did away with 'athletic' scholarships too.

  20. When you cut money loosing women sports, you have to cut money making or break even men’s sports to stay in compliance with Title IX.

    This is funny. Do you know why? The NCAA can't make this argument. Marc Buonoconti, son of NFL Hall of Famer Nick, was paralyzed from the neck down while playing football for the Citadel. The school refused to cover all of his expenses. So the Buonocontis sued, and one of their main claims was that Marc was an employee of the school and injured while conducting his job. The NCAA backed the school. In order to overcome the claim of employee status, they had to swear before a judge that generating revenue was not a goal of intercollegiate athletics. Not that it wasn't the main purpose; that it wasn't a purpose at all. Shamefully, the judge bought this argument, and so NCAA athletes are not considered employees, despite receiving compensation in a manner that causes all other people who receive it to be so considered.

    One consequence of that is that the NCAA can't defend itself from Title IX by bringing up the idea (true or false) that football and basketball generate money that is used to support other sports. It would invite immediate re-evaluation of whether athletes are employees, and we can't have that. Why, just imagine how horrible it would be if football players received the same workplace rights as anyone else.

    Hoist on their own petard.

  21. Right,

    as noted above, many of the schools you mention have robust athletics programs in many sports (including MIT and Caltech). The Ivies, of course compete at the DI level, which means all of the abuses and concerns you have apply to those illustrious institutions. At many smaller elite schools there intercollegiate athletics are DIII (no scholarships, as mentioned above). I would argue that these athletics programs (and I was part of one when I was a student) are integral to the college experience for many people, regardless of the won/loss record (and we lost, mostly! at least in football). Now it is fine with me if you want to go to a school that doesn't have intercollegiate athletics, but you haven't presented me with any good examples of why this should be desirable (I don't know much about UChicago; but then again, opinions seem to differ on how great a place that is). We have gotten away from the topic here, though, which was about the money spent on major college sports – on that I think we basically agree that it shouldn't take away from the academic pursuits of the community. The argument is simply over how much money is appropriate to spend. Some might say none, others a great deal. I would say enough to provide students with the ability to participate and compete in a constructive way (at all levels).

    Specifically to Barbara, I have been at several of these institutions, and I can say that sports are definitely an integral part of the experience for many members of these communities. The lives of students at Caltech and Harvey Mudd (the two I've spent time at) would be immeasureably poorer without athletics. Of course, as several of us have said, that is a whole different kettle of fish, as it should be.

  22. Thanks for that information Dennis. I wonder what the budget is for the athletic programs are at those schools and how much they pay the head coaches and athletic directors.

  23. Paul, I really don't care when times are flush whether a school has athletics or not. But on the point of being integral to student life, I would say that as a non-athlete, I found intercollegiate athletics to be neutral or a net negative to my experience as a college student (the negative from being forced to do a group assignment with a football player who refused to contribute anything — most athletes were not like this). I attended two competitions my entire undergraduate days, and one as a graduate student. To this day, I have no idea whether the various teams of my alma mater are good unless they are nationally ranked.

    As an athlete, you had an understandably different experience, but I think my point stands: intercollegiate athletics are mostly important for the athletes themselves, not the school as a whole. Most students really wouldn't be affected if athletic programs were pared or eliminated. The alumni are a different story.

  24. Hey, where do I send the check? It's obvious that prior donations did not go to fund the baseball team. Just as it should be obvious that a football program's like Notre Dame's (with their own TV contract) pays for all other sports at the school. But as to Michael's initial reply (comment #2), can we agree that there is enough embarrassment to go around, regardless of how it is apportioned? [-says the Cal grad living 5 minutes from Stanford and forced to go to the SC-Stanford game this weekend out of family loyalty, rather than the Cal-UCLA game]. "Rollah" on you Bears!

  25. forced to go to the SC-Stanford game this weekend out of family loyalty

    You need a new family, Rollah.

  26. I have one acquaintance who perfectly embodies the mythical scholar-athlete. It's a person with great physical fitness, and an uncanny drive to challenge herself in competitive sports; these challenges are inseparable from her general well-being and part of her well-rounded life. What's the sport? Ultimate Frisbee. She's on the best local club team, which raises just enough money for plane tickets to Nationals.

    Competitive scholar-athletes exist, and they're great. But they don't need dedicated buildings and million-dollar support staff. The student-run Baseball Club should be able to walk into a Student Activities Office and ask for help. Just as the choir, the orchestra, the solar car team, the quiz bowl club, etc.. can ask for funding, an office, space reservations, and a link from the Development Office, so should the student-run Baseball Club and the Rugby Club.

  27. Paul Orwin wrote: The Ivies, of course compete at the DI level, which means all of the abuses and concerns you have apply to those illustrious institutions.

    First, my pedigree: University of Chicago alum from its D-III glory days; I recall Oberlin beating Chicago 69-0 my first autumn there, shortly after football was reinstated. It was then home to the world's largest kazoo. I am also the son and nephew of several alums from the era of Robert "Whenever I feel the urge to exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes" Hutchins, raised to worship at his altar. My father was an academic and shortly after starting a tenured position at what was then a football power in the northeast, he moved in the faculty senate to reduce the role of athletics and especially football at the institution. Unfortunately, nothing came of the attempt. With this background, I come to IC athletics with a jaundiced eye.

    My daughter is a recent alum of one of the Ivies where she was a varsity athlete all 4 years and helped lead her team to the conference championship her senior year; she also won her department's award that year for the best senior thesis, which came with a nice chunk of change.

    The Ivies don't have all the abuses, etc., because according to conference rules, athletes cannot be offered any financial aid that would not be available to another admitted student from a similar financial situation. Furthermore, each of the schools has its own rules about the distribution of HS academics and test scores for the applicants it admits, and there are restrictions about how far these can be bent for athletes. So, special rules in re admission do apply for athletes, but they are limited in how far they can deviate from the norm for non-athletes. I am not aware of special rules applying to them once they get on campus.* My daughter did not mention anything of the sort and I trust that I would have heard about it, if not from her then from another parent who would have heard. I did know of one teammate who had to take a year off for an honor code violation; it was considered scandalous (not having to leave, but the violation itself). When I heard about the situation, I spoke to the coaches about it, and they expressed disappointment with the student, not the institution.

    *The team does have an academic advisor who keeps tabs on the players to deal with academic problems before they get out of hand. While my daughter was there, it was a full time administrator who apparently volunteered for the situation. In other years, I think faculty have been in this role.

  28. two quick points,

    Barbara, it stinks when a personal bad experience sours you on such a large part of many peoples' lives, but you are certainly not alone. Just as athletics is mostly of benefit to athletes, computer science departments mostly benefit computer scientists, history departments mostly benefit historians. Now, we can ask the (good) question how much each of these things benefits the larger community. Opinions will differ! My undergrad college (Harvey Mudd) only had science departments, and a "Humanities and Social Sciences" department. So it clearly prioritized differently from Cal, and not just on athletics. It had no athletic program of its own, but shared with Claremont McKenna and Scripps. Student athletes weren't on scholarships (DIII), and many students chose not to participate in intercollegiate sports because it detracted from their studies. Others (like myself) chose to participate, and struggled with that issue a great deal. Of course this is way off topic from the question at hand.

    The information about the Ivies is interesting, and I didn't realize that (although, I recall someone telling me how Stanford made the decision to move away from that model to be competitive in the Pac-10; but Stanford hating is a pretty common thing among my peers, so take that with a grain of salt). The Ivies, of course have chosen a different path toward endowment heaven, and their path involves an overt rejection of the value of competitive sport (excluding upper class sports like crew and, oddly, rugby). I think that topic heads into altogether different waters (sorry!)

  29. One clarification, one further point.

    1) On rereading my post, I realize the reference to the kazoo was quite the non-sequitur. The half time show consisted of a kazoo marching band and a float-like kazoo that was, I dunno, 20+ feet long.

    2) William Bowen, formerly president of Princeton, then of the Mellon Fdn, has written a couple of books on IC athletics. The Game of Life looks at IC athletics in general, while Reclaiming the Game*, IIRC (I lent my copy to a college soccer coach I was friendly with about 7 years ago, and never got it back), looks more closely at how the Ivies and near peer colleges (i.e., NESCAC and similar conferences) handle athletics. It's not a pretty sight and puts one in great sympathy with O'Hare's position.

    *His co-author is the daughter of the President of Yale.

  30. Well, it isn't just a single experience, but I do question the prominence given to sports in culture as a whole, and in particular higher education. I like sports, so I always feel a little sheepish about my objections. My nephew went to Yale and almost certainly would not have gotten in but for his athleticism. Once there, the team became his life, and, frankly while he didn't get any "extra" help from the school, he also didn't do all that well. Being a Yale graduate, he landed on his feet, though he's certainly not burning up any paths to wealth and fame. My niece goes to Stanford, and the favoritism to athletes shines like a beacon in a black and foggy night. She received free tutoring in every subject. She received not four, but five, years of tuition so that she could take a lighter course load. And no, she wouldn't have gotten in to Stanford absent athletics either.

    They are good kids, believe me, no anger or resentment towards them at all on my part. But the college/athletics connection distorts not just educational experience, it distorts society when parents are conditioned to put a premium on athletics over other extracurricular activities as a path to preferential admission. As examples, my niece and nephew have virtually no other interests besides sports.

    So while in some schools, it may be a marginal preference, those margins add up over time and permeate the culture at large. Title IX makes it more obvious — but Title IX isn't the problem. The underlying problem is the undue emphasis on athletics at all levels. When everyone has lots of money maybe it can be overlooked. But for a state school like Berkeley to favor athletics over academic departments when something has to go on the chopping block — that's where you see the distorted values on full display.

  31. Put the cost on the private side and cut the public contribution. I still bitterly relate my sports charge of $5 per term when I never went to a game.

    Raise the health coverage for sports players from an unrealistic 2 or 3 per cent to 110 to 150 percent that it costs each year. Yes, I worked as a part time/student teacher fellowship and assessed where the hell all of the money for the school insurance program was going. Right down the sewer with the "sports program."

    No, I see absolutely no benefit to sports. The worst part is that it produces police. Every policeman in the US is both a volunteer and a total adrenaline addict. Adrenaline addicts should never be hired into any type of confrontational situation. I believe that an honest investigation of the police who wind up being "investigated" and contact sports would be a perfect one on one match.

    Sell the naming rights by bid at the beginning of each season, "Rush's rashes" vs "Beck's Buttholes." Surcharge the food rights at all stadiums public or private and use the money to stop the amount of food


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