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By a 91-68 vote, Academic Senate tells Cal Athletics to pay its own way — starting now

Campus officials agree on goal of self-sufficiency, but say getting there will take time

| 06 November 2009

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau pronounced himself “as disturbed as anyone in this room” that Berkeley’s athletics department posted a $5.8 million budget deficit in 2008-09. Athletic Director Sandy Barbour accepted “full responsibility” for the shortfall, while Vice Chancellor for Administration Nathan Brostrom committed himself to working on new initiatives to eliminate the need for campus loans and subsidies.

Senior Natalie LaRochelle, a former member of the women’s swim team, even broke down in tears, struggling to keep her composure as she sought to explain the importance of intercollegiate sports and pleaded for continued support.

In the end, though, Berkeley’s Academic Senate on Thursday voted 91-68 to recommend that the chancellor take “immediate action” to restore Intercollegiate Athletics to “its intended self-supporting basis,” including cutting off campus subsidies and student-registration fees to the department as soon as permitted by existing contract constraints.

The nonbinding resolution urges the chancellor to ensure that the athletics program comes up with a plan to retire its debt to the campus by next spring’s meeting of the Senate. It also recommends that he and the Berkeley development staff urge donors to prioritize academics when giving to the campus.

“There is value to sports,” acknowledged anthropology professor Laura Nader, one of the resolution’s sponsors. But given a fiscal crisis that has led to layoffs, unpaid furloughs, curtailed faculty hires, and other cutbacks at Berkeley, she said, the costs of subsidizing intercollegiate athletics “are now intolerable.”

The university gave the department $7.7 million last year to subsidize an operating budget of $64.6 million, about 89 percent of which comes from ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, fees for broadcast rights, endowment income, and donations from Cal boosters. The remaining 11 percent was provided by the campus, which also loaned the department $5.8 million to cover its shortfall. This year university funding for intercollegiate athletics was cut by 20 percent, and the chancellor has said there will be a written agreement confirming that loans to cover recent deficits will be repaid in full.

No public funds are spent on Cal’s athletics program. Campus financial support for the department comes from student-registration fees that cannot, as a matter of policy, be used for instructional purposes, and from private funds allocated by the chancellor.

Although the debate was at times contentious, advocates on both sides agree with the goal of making intercollegiate athletics at Cal self-supporting. The scrimmage is over the time needed to get there. Campus officials say cutting off funding now would cause "grievous harm" to the program, which includes — along with its revenue-generating flagships, Golden Bears football and men's basketball — 25 other men's and women's teams, from track and field to crew, lacrosse, and swimming and diving.

In a 22-page FAQ submitted to faculty on Oct. 26, Barbour laid out what she described as “ample evidence” of her department’s benefits to the university, continued improvements in the academic performance of Cal’s 850 student-athletes, and “the steps we are taking towards our long-term, aspirational goal of financial self-sufficiency.”

And despite taking measures that lowered operating expenses by $2.2 million, she said, those savings were largely offset by increases of nearly $2 million in costs beyond the department’s control. They included financial-aid expenses and so-called administrative full-cost accounting assessments, or reimbursements the athletics department is required to pay to the campus for administrative support of its operations.

After the vote, Birgeneau pledged to work toward ending subsidies for Cal sports teams, but was unsure how long that would take.

“Although it is advisory we will, of course, take very seriously the Academic Senate’s recommendation and will consider the most effective way to move forward,” the chancellor said. Among other obstacles to an immediate funding halt, he cited federal Title IX gender-equity requirements and existing media contracts for football and men's basketball that will continue to limit the programs' ability to increase revenue for several years.

The chancellor also expressed support for Cal Athletics' current review of its programmatic scope. "What we need is to create a responsible plan that will enable Intercollegiate Athletics to become self-sufficient," Birgeneau said, adding: "Everything is on the table."

Alice Agogino, a mechanical-engineering professor and one of the resolution's most visible spokespeople, called the chancellor's commitment "a little vague," but seemed willing to give the department a chance to come up with a plan by spring.

"We wrote in the resolution 'as soon as possible, given the contractual commitments,' and we didn't know what those were," she said. "And we didn't want to micro-manage. But we wanted to have a mandate to the chancellor and to the director of athletics that they need to be moving more aggressively and honestly toward a self-sustaining auxiliary program."

Barbour said she was "disappointed" the resolution passed, but noted there were just "91 faculty members who voted for it out of 1,500," most of whom she believes are supportive of Cal sports and student-athletes. "I'm committed to working with this campus, working with our faculty, to have a program that is large and robust and successful, and one that is financially responsible," she said. "That hasn't changed from 20 minutes ago to now."