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Earlier this month, faculty at Eastern Washington University made waves when they released a report calling for the school to consider dropping out of D1 athletics, or perhaps out of athletics entirely. EWU’s administration has not given any signal that they’re seriously considering actually doing this, and the school doesn’t really fit the profile of other schools that have recently dropped out of D1.

But it appears academics at EWU aren’t the only ones concerned about athletic spending in an era of scarce resources. Even professors at an FBS institution are concerned.

Let’s talk about Colorado State

Faculty at Colorado State weren’t asking the school to drop to FCS or DIII, but they did signal they’re not happy about the current spending trajectory. Via the Coloradoan:

Citing annual NCAA reports that show the university’s “subsidy” to athletics — funding from CSU's general fund and a mandatory student athletic fee — had increased to $25.4 million in 2018-19, CSU’s Faculty Council passed a resolution Nov. 5 urging the “administration to significantly reduce athletic program subsidies, and to use the savings to support the university’s primary academic mission.”

This apparently is not a Faculty Council given to regular hyperbolic statements. The Coloradoan says this is their resolution in 11 years.

The Rams have unquestionably spent more on athletics over the last decade. Per the Coloradoan, CSU’s budget went from ~ $25 million in 2009-2010 to over $54 million in 2018-2019. Some of that increase is from the bonds needed to pay for their new football stadium. Some of that comes from increased salaries paid out to coaches, and some of that comes from increasing headcount around the department.

Did that pay off? Well, that depends

If you measure success by conference titles, deep postseason runs or new conference affiliation, then no, Colorado State’s new investments haven’t worked out. Hiring Jim McElwain did lead to on the field success (and a big check once he left for Florida), but Mike Bobo mostly didn’t work out, failing to ever win more than seven games in a season. And for what it’s worth, Colorado State’s most recent hiring of Steve Addazio did not win praise within the industry on the process or result.

Things haven’t looked much better on the basketball front. The Larry Eustachy era ended badly, to say the least.

But those investments also paid for improved facilities across the department, and Ram Olympic sports have often performed very well.

Like at Eastern Washington, faculty concerns are also a product of the local political and financial reality

Perhaps nobody would mind too much if the athletic department budget doubled if budgets were doubling across campus, but that does not appear to be the case. Colorado is near the bottom in state per-student spending in higher education, and cuts during the Great Recession hit the school significantly:

They were all notified they needed to generate more of their own revenue ever since the state of Colorado’s “budget crisis” of 2008-09, when state funding for higher education was slashed by 13.7% in a single year. The state taxpayer-funded contribution to CSU’s annual budget of more than $1.3 billion in 2018-19 was a little more than $110 million, or just 8.5% — down significantly from its 16% share 10 years earlier.

The intricacies of higher education budgeting vary a lot by state, but the national story of governments reducing investment has been pretty standard across most state schools over the last decade. If you’re looking for underpaid, highly frustrated instructors, you won’t have to look very hard.

Who is right? Well, it’s hard to say

This is often what I get asked when I share these sorts of stories on Twitter, or on the radio, and…I really think it depends! I realize this is a highly unsatisfying answer, which is why I don’t get invited back on the radio very often.

The question of “is the increased spending on athletics appropriate” depends a lot on what you’re trying to get out of your athletic program to begin with. Are you trying to improve alumni engagement or donations via athletics? Are you trying to market the university? Are you looking to specifically grow out of state enrollment? Are you trying to improve the diversity of your undergraduate population? Enrich the student life of undergrads as you compete with online education? Win conference or national titles? Some other reasons?

I hear some folks talk about how athletics is only appropriate if it can be completely self-sustaining. I don’t think I believe that. Profit probably shouldn’t be the most important factor in deciding what to fund in higher education, as there are plenty of disciplines that enrich the academy that probably are not “profitable”.

The problem, I think, is when the mission of a D1 college athletic department is not really nailed down. Like, here’s former Colorado State University president Tony Frank:

Frank, through CSU system and campus spokespeople, declined to comment for this story. But he frequently referred to the school’s athletic programs as the “front porch” of the university to justify the increased expenditures during his 12 years as president of the Fort Collins campus. The goal, he said, was to gain exposure through athletics that would convince people to “open the front door” and look at everything else CSU has to offer.

So I’ve read variations of this argument from hundreds of university administrators, and I don’t think it’s a crazy or irrational one. But it sure seems like you’d be able to measure a lot of outcomes that come from folks opening that proverbial front door! And if you decide that the bulk of the benefits are really impossible to measure, then I can’t see any reason why athletics should be spared from the intense scrutiny that humanities programs get, especially since much of athletic spending comes from student fees.

If Colorado State’s strategic goal is to improve recruitment of students out of state, or to get out of the Mountain West, or build connections without the Colorado legislature, then perhaps I can see why doubling the athletic budget might make some sense. Maybe the specific coaching hires didn’t work out, but the idea to spend enough to land some of them might have been sound.

But if the plan is more nebulous than that, or if the university has other, more local strategic goals, then it is probably worth asking if spending $54 million is the most efficient use of resources.

I suspect this won’t be the last story like this we see in 2020

Will faculty representatives be effective in limiting college athletics spending? I doubt it. Professors and even some university administrators have argued against the excesses of college athletics since the 1880s, and most of the time, those concerns have been bulldozed over. I won’t profess to be an expert on campus politics at either Eastern Washington or Colorado State, but I suspect neither athletic program will significantly cut back on spending in the near future. That jives with the messaging EWU is already putting out, anyway.

But as other schools are forced to make cutbacks, while academics perceive that the local football team, even a lousy one that students don’t support, gets money, it shouldn’t surprise anybody if they get upset.

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