A headline last month read, “College football needs fiscal reform,” and the story reported the concerns of William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the university system of Maryland, and R. Gerald Turner, president of Southern Methodist University.
These two educators and university administrators chaired the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an organization that in recent years has been taking a close look at the runaway spending on athletics by most NCAA Division I schools.
The commission is collaborating with leaders in higher education, as well as athletic directors, to develop a reform agenda that will address what they consider unsustainable growth in major college sports expenditures.
Their findings show “all who care about the role of intercollegiate athletics within the academic enterprise should agree that both data and common sense point to the need for immediate reform.
“Neither enhanced media contracts nor a football playoff can solve the systemic financial problems facing athletic programs. Serious, sensible fiscal reform will.”
Another headline within days of the Knight Commission report stated, “KU Gridiron Club plans on track.” The story told of Kansas University athletic department officials, surely with the approval of KU’s chancellor, to push ahead on efforts to raise $30 million in the next month or two so they can build a plush, 3,000-seat private eating and drinking facility atop the east side of Memorial Stadium.
During the past few months, numerous stories have been told of the damaging effects at KU caused by cuts in state funding for higher education. Those effects include likely termination of faculty members, cuts in classes, larger class sizes, increased fees for KU student housing and meals, further maintenance delays and many other cuts or reductions.
And yet, it’s full speed ahead on the Gridiron Club. University officials make it clear all of this is to be paid by private money, not state funds, as if it is OK and proper to spend private dollars in this way even when state officials find it necessary to cut back on state tax dollars coming to the university for academic purposes.
The reduction in state revenue is due to the economy. Kansas taxpayers are facing tough times with businesses and individuals making less and therefore not paying as much in taxes to the state.
Maybe part of the deal in attracting KU’s new football coach was to promise the new Gridiron Club to keep up with the Joneses. It’s quite likely other costly goodies were promised to the new coach along with many hefty salaries for the coach’s assistants — far outpacing what longtime, outstanding KU faculty members are paid.
The Knight Commission acknowledges, “change cannot come from the decree of one or two courageous university presidents,” adding that, based on a recent Knight Commission survey, “fewer than a quarter of FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision schools that now number 120 major universities) presidents interviewed … believe that big-time intercollegiate athletics are sustainable in their current form nationally.”
Kirwan and Turner said presidents and chancellors have limited power to make major substantive changes acting alone.
If that’s the case, who can? Currently there is growing support in Congress to eliminate tax deductibility for contributions to university athletic programs made through university endowment associations.
The Knight Commission leaders said, “We recognize that change can come only from collaborative actions, some of which may prove unpopular in some campuses. The first step will need to be true transparency regarding athletic spending.”
This raises questions relative to the massive spending by KU athletics: Where is the money coming from? How much is coming from the KU Endowment Association and what is the debt load of the KU athletic department? There isn’t much transparency from athletic department officials who only provide information when they are forced to do so through the Freedom of Information Act.
Money calls the shots at the KU athletic department, as it does at most other major universities, now called FBS schools. Apparently, chancellors like KU’s Bernadette Gray-Little can do little about it because whenever athletics people want to keep up with the Joneses in recruiting and attracting coaches, they are given the green light.
What must those in the academic side of the university, those in the Kansas Legislature, parents of students and others concerned about the quality of a university education think about the critical need for a $34 million lounge for those who want to watch a KU football game in comfort with food and drink?
Where are the priorities at KU?
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The recent exits of KU football coach Mark Mangino and Texas Tech’s Mike Leach raise questions about timing and motivation. Was Mangino pushed out and Leach fired primarily because their athletic directors had a personal dislike of their coaches and were looking for a specific incident to justify getting rid of them? Perhaps these incidents will prompt football coaches to seek more protection in their lucrative contracts.