BROWN: A smarter alternative
A thought experiment: Instead of cutting AccessUVa, why not cut football instead?
The University Bookstore recently held an event at which English Prof. Mark Edmundson talked about his new book, Why Teach?, in which he analyzes the purpose of higher education and advocated strengthening humanities disciplines at universities. At the event, Edmundson discussed a wide range of topics and eventually talked about funding for academic programs. He called for a re-examination of our priorities as a school and argued that if teacher salaries and entire departments were on the table in a budgetary crisis, then athletics funding — specifically football money — should be as well.
Listening to Edmundson, I started thinking about the recent actions taken by the administration and the Board of Visitors to address the University’s financial concerns — specifically the choice to cut the all-grant aid to low-income students that AccessUVa formerly provided. After thinking it over, I don’t think we can maintain our integrity as an institution of learning modeled after Jeffersonian ideals without restoring grant aid — even if it means cutting the budget of something like football.
I, like Edmundson and most of our community, am a huge fan of Cavalier sports. I love going to football games and watching our teams in all sports compete at the extremely high level that they do. I think athletics is a valuable part of the University and deserves to be maintained. I am also a club rower, and benefit from the athletic budget through sharing a boathouse with the varsity women’s team. Our athletes are some of our best ambassadors and alumni.
But I also believe that athletics is not the most important part of the University. Bringing low-income students to the University does not just improve their lives and their family’s lives. It also improves the diversity of experience and perspective of students on Grounds. That, in turn, directly improves the education of every student here. It bolsters our ability to understand and confront a variety of complex issues from a variety of angles in and out of the classroom, and gives the University an increased role in the improvement of our national community. In short, this diversity is invaluable, and could be severely impacted by the cuts to AccessUVa.
I’m not saying that football should be cut. I also don’t want any athletic programs to be cut, as they are another way for low-income students to find their way to the University. But last year our athletic department took in about $80 million in athletic revenue compared to $75 million in expenses. About $13 million of that revenue came from student fees. In other words, without the contribution students pay each semester, athletics would have lost $8 million last year. That same amount was spent on athletic scholarships, and more than twice that amount was spent on coaches and staff. Could cuts be made to the other $33 million spent each year on athletics? I think some sacrifices could certainly be made.
Cutting AccessUVa is estimated to save about $6 million a year. Taking all of this out of the student fees would still leave $7 million in student money going to athletics. With no cuts to athletics spending that would leave a $1 million dollar deficit. Cutting the overall spending of athletics by just 2 percent would then put our program back in the black by half a million. And I’m sure further cuts could be made without losing athletic scholarships or cutting jobs.
Is this too much of a sacrifice? Loss of socio-economic diversity, which is also a major contributor to racial and cultural diversity, will be devastating in the long term to our status as an elite university. While athletics are an important part of that status as well, they are far less integral and far more capable of taking a modest cut. Jefferson did not want the University to be a source of revenue for athletic teams. He wanted it to be a place where students could challenge each other academically, spiritually, personally and also athletically. He would hate to see the University move toward an isolated bubble of prestige and wealth for the sake of just one of these pursuits.
The University can certainly run a successful athletic program with less money. It is at least realistic enough to just do what Edmundson asked last week and put athletics money on the table next to grants, teacher salaries and academic departments. Maybe we decide as a school that athletics deserves every penny it gets, and we move on. But we owe the low-income students who will be forced to take on thousands in loans to come to our school in the future that conversation. We certainly haven’t had it yet.