Thursday, January 29, 2009

When the Football team holds a bake sale...

Once again, I'm taking a bit of a departure from the theme of this blog "Mixed Race America" -- although I'm sure there's a way to think about how race is part of what I want to write about: university priorities in times of financial crisis.

As everyone who has been alive these past few months knows, the finances of our nation, and I dare say globe, has been hard hit by various banking crises. And everyone is hurt: the government (federal to local), institutions (private and public), and individuals.

And as an "institution" various universities and colleges, both public and private, have had their endowments crumble (because their investments, like everyone else's were tied into these financial debacles). Things are bad all over. If you are a college professor, whether you read The Chronicle of Higher Ed or not, you have heard the horror stories, maybe at your home institution but certainly at schools across the nation: job searches cancelled, sometimes right in the middle of the search when they've already brought people to interview on campus, photocopying privileges taken away, conference and research travel suspended, and even more serious, staff layoffs, increased class sizes and/or increased teaching loads, fewer graduate students admitted and/or current graduate student support shortened, centers and programs cut, and in the case of a very controversial move, art museums closed and their collections sold off.

This last scenario has made worldwide headlines. Brandeis University is closing the doors of its art museum and selling off its world renown contemporary art collection, which contains works by such luminaries as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein (click here for The New York Times article). This decision has been loudly and widely criticized, particularly within art circles. The general consensus is that this is a short-sighted decision, selling off a collection potentially valued at $350 million dollars to solve a $10 million dollar deficit, particularly in a market where these works are not going to fetch top dollar. It sends a bad message about the value of art--that it is an expendable material good that one can sell off in bad economics times, rather than a priceless cultural and educational asset that enriches many different communities--both at the university and abroad (since in the case of Brandeis's excellent collection, many of their works circulate throughout museums around the world, which then advertises on the art labels that the work's home is at the Rose museum at Brandeis.)

One of the things I'm struck by is that in times of financial crisis, we do often go to the arts and humanities as places that are not necessary for the "core" mission of the school/college/university. Art and music programs are usually the first to be slashed from public school budgets. But what about sports teams? Do we ever think of cutting an athletic program or to significantly curtail it? Southern U., like many colleges in the region, has a strong sports culture, particularly around football and basketball. The sports culture here is so strong that when I have had high school students visiting my classes and have asked my current students why Visitor X should come to Southern U., they almost unanimously say "THE FOOTBALL/BASKETBALL TEAM!" As an English professor and, more importantly, a non-team sports fan (remember: golf is my game), it's a dismaying answer, even though I do know that the students appreciate the education they are getting and other cultural aspects of the university.

Yet I can't help but think, especially when I hear about Brandeis's decision or the decisions that other schools I know are making--to close centers and institutes, to have professors willingly take pay cuts in order to prevent staff members from being fired, to switch from a 2/2 load to a 3/2 load--that what if we did away with the athletic program, or if not do away (because I do believe athletics are important, both from the point-of-view of performing as well as watching) then seriously cutting the budgets and scaling back the programs of various sports, but especially football and basketball, would this prevent academic departments from firing lecturers and would it allow departments to keep graduate student funding?

I know the arguments about elite college sports teams, that they provide revenue for their schools, that big donors, especially alumni, won't donate to schools without these teams, that it's free advertising for the university: getting young kids to start rooting for the team in a bowl game translates into them wanting to attend Big State U. for college. But if any of you remember reading The New York Times magazine article back in 2002 (and you can click here to refresh your memory) then you know that college sports doesn't necessarily pay--in fact in many cases they aren't even breaking even and are being subsidized by their schools. And as far as the advertising argument goes, I sincerely doubt that we would find our enrollments down significantly if we scaled back our athletics department. I've participated in admissions events at the undergraduate level and sat on admissions committees at the graduate level. I don't recall anyone ever saying that they were only coming to Southern U. for its sports teams. That might be a bonus--something that the students will enjoy as part of the life of the college, but they come because they want a good education.

And I'm not talking about necessarily cutting the football or basketball program--I'm not that dumb. Even though at my two alma maters (UCSB and Boston University) the student body did vote to dismantle the football programs (and yes, I voted in the affirmative in both cases), the culture here at Southern U. wouldn't allow it. But scaling back in terms of coach salaries (which are ridiculously high, especially for the two big sports--in 2007 USA Today announced that the average salary for football coaches at top schools was a million a year), in terms of recruiting money, in terms of other amenities that the average Southern U. student doesn't enjoy. I think that's something that should be considered, and that I hope is being explored because I'm assuming that the athletics programs, at Southern U. and across the nation, are having to make tough choices like every other department.

But still, I can't help thinking of those bumper stickers that talk about "It'll be a great day when the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a new fighter plane."

For me, it will be a great day when the Football team has to hold a bake sale to buy new jerseys and the English department has standing room only crowds for its lectures and talks. One can only dream.


Paul said...

Scary times! What I hear about sports teams and money, though, is that they generate revenue for universities through corporate sponsorship, ticket sales, alumni support, and so on. And so the game is not really even the same with regards to how the university thinks of funding for them versus academic departments and other academic matter.

Jennifer said...

Hey Paul,
Things are dire--if you want to call me I can give you a more detailed heads up about what I know (that wouldn't be appropriate for this blog).

But in terms of sports, if you read through the lengthy NYTimes Magazine article, the author makes a compelling case for how some football teams (and I think the same can be true for basketball) are not actually making money, in spite of the corporate sponsors and alumni support--that many are really so expensive that whatever revenue they potentially generate is offset by the expenses of the program.

I suppose it is a potential threat for a donor to threaten pulling support if we do away with the football team. But you know, I'm willing to take that risk. In some ways, what I'm also concerned about is the atmosphere and message we send at the college of where our priorities are. Brandeis has made it clear that their priority is not art. For us to take a stand against exorbitant coach salaries, particularly for a team that is not an elite team, in favor of promoting world-class academics--because we have MANY elite professors and scholars and because we want to cultivate an atmosphere of elite education for our undergrads and grad students--without being an "elite" school (because one of the things I love about Southern U. is that it's public)--this is why I would actually vote to dismantle our football program (while keeping the basketball program--I think Southern U. would close its doors before getting rid of the basketball program).

I'm sure if any of my students are reading this comment they would boycott my classes, but when all is said and done, I think people need to have a wake up call about priorities--did you really come here to root for the football team or to get an education, learn something, and become a thoughtful contributing member to society?

Yes I am a grumpy 80 year old man trapped in the body of a 30 something Asian American woman. And I hope you know my rant was not directed at you, Paul, since I'm sure we're on the same page.

Donna Bickford said...

Re generating revenue -- generating revenue is not the same as making a profit or being self-supporting -- very few college/university athletic teams in the ENTIRE COUNTRY are either self-supporting or helping generate revenue for their home institution. In addition, the money that is spent on special tutoring, special study rooms, special dining arrangements, etc., etc. for athletes COSTS.

CVT said...

The thing is, athletic programs are cut ALL THE TIME at major universities. Budgets are scaled back, etc. It's just that the major sports (the ones that get the attention) are not the ones that get cut - it's the wrestling teams, fencing, softball . . . Thanks to Title IX, at least it's not just the women's sports programs that get cut, anymore.

But they DO get cut.

As far as money generation - that's only really going to be the top-top teams at the top-top sports schools (I'd guess maybe 10 - 25 schools, out of hundreds) that make any sort of real money based on football or basketball.

That said, if we're going to be talking about this on a blog about race, I ask the question: what do you think is going to happen to numbers of students of color getting scholarships (specifically African-American, but not just) if you cut the athletic programs? Obviously, this is a controversial point to bring up, but the fact remains that schools (no matter what they say) do not value their students of color - unless they are athletes. Then, and only then, do those students suddenly become seen and heard from and honored as representatives of their schools.

So, from that standpoint, why is it that visual art (certainly not representative of PoC on a general level) should be valued more highly than athletic programs? Athletics often prove to be the only arena for positive images and major representation of PoC (granted, that brings on other stereotypes, but it's better than general society), so it often bothers me how quickly people are to dismiss them as "unimportant" in terms of cultural value.

This is a battle I often have at the arts camp I work at in the summer - where we often boost up the arts (which I'm fine with) while denigrating athletics (which is not okay). In the end, the message sent to the kids is: arts (where you are not represented, and you have few role models) is GOOD and IMPORTANT, while athletics (where you are well-represented and have a number of role models) is UNCOUTH, VIOLENT, and DANGEROUS.

It's absolutely a cultural thing. I am a huge proponent of the arts - in terms of my personal life, and it's value outside of it - but athletics has played a huge role in my life, as well (and I would actually say a more important and beneficial role).

I was going to write a post about this a while back, but never got around to it. I think I will, now.

Jennifer said...


Sorry for not responding to your comment sooner (I don't even know if you'll see this--how embarrassing for me!). I've been crazy-busy at school and with Chinese new year stuff (this year people have been really great about wishing me happy new year and more importantly wanting to CELEBRATE by taking me out to Chinese restaurants. Nice friends to recognize that this is a big deal holiday for me).

Anyway, your point about race and athletics is important and I actually think worthy of an entire post rather than just having me comment here -- because I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on this after I respond--and I'd love to hear others.

I will say, for now, that I appreciate you bringing up the topic of college sports and race. And the importance of sports. I also think sports are important. I was active in high school teams and on intramural teams in college.

But I'm disturbed by a few things--like the disparity of resources -- track and field doesn't have the prestige of football or basketball and lets just forget about sports that don't even register on the radar of most people like badminton (which was my high school sport--that and tennis--am I reinforcing Asian stereotypes now?)

Anyway, I'll save more of this for a post, and when I do, I look forward to hearing you chime in. We may not see eye to eye on this issue, which is fine--I have great respect for your opinion and want to get push back, especially if I'm not thinking through the race stuff very well.

CVT said...

Jennifer -
Saw the comment. I'm actually putting up my own post on this tomorrow.

For now, I'll just address the "resource disparity" you mentioned - ultimately, it comes down to business. Football and basketball get tv and advertising dollars and sell tickets and merchandise. The rest don't. So where the money goes is a reflection of that. I'm not saying that that's necessarily fair, but it makes sense (I'm also not deciding which sports are more "important," as a result).

However - the art world is just as unequal (probably more so, really). People pay millions of dollars for a square on white canvas because of the name behind it, while not being willing to pay $100 at a coffee shop for work of higher quality (and creativity). Certain artists, genres, or time periods get more credit (and money, and exposure) while so many others fall by the wayside.

I don't have the numbers on me, but I think the odds of becoming a professional athlete and a professional artist (making enough to live comfortably and support a family) are about the same.

To be honest, I think the kind of money that gets put into BOTH (high-profile sports AND the highest-profile artist) is completely ludicrous. But equally so.

My post will tell you why I think folks have a tendency to have more of a problem with football/basketball spending than art, though.