Some UC Berkeley faculty criticize sports subsidy

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Jahvid Best #4 of the California Golden Bears runs against the Washington State Cougars at California Memorial Stadium on October 24, 2009 in Berkeley, California.

Home to the nationally ranked Cal Bears and a clutch of Nobel laureates, the University of California, Berkeley, boasts brains and brawn. But with budget cuts fraying the seams of campus life - fewer classes, faculty furloughs, student fee hikes - tension has developed over the millions that go to support Cal's sporting life.

Some faculty are proposing the department be compelled to live within its means, something they planned to discuss at a meeting of the Academic Senate Thursday.

"We need to get our priorities straight in a time of budget crisis," said Michael O'Hare, a public policy professor who is supporting a resolution calling for, among other things, the end to subsidizing intercollegiate athletics.

While Cal's popular football and men's basketball teams make money, other programs don't, something that has come into sharper focus as campus budgets have tightened.

For the fiscal year just ended, the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics got about $7.7 million ($5 million from the chancellor, the rest from student fees) and had a deficit of $5.8 million.

The department says it has cut spending but projects another deficit next year.

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau is "disturbed" by the deficit and covered it with the understanding the money will be paid back, said campus spokesman Dan Mogulof.

But the administration defends the ongoing support. The $5 million from 2008-09 (this is separate from the $5.8 million deficit) went for women's programs, required by Title IX, Mogulof said.

"The chancellor believes that a certain level of institutional support is more than warranted due to our belief in and commitment to gender equity and due to the belief that a robust intercollegiate program is a defining characteristic of the best universities," Mogulof said.

O'Hare said he supports Title IX, but what's at issue here is putting millions into a program that benefits a small group of elite athletes. "We're talking about spectator sports," he said.

Berkeley, one of the nation's most prestigious universities, isn't the only school struggling with this issue.

An NCAA study found that 94 of the then-119 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision ran a deficit in the 2007-08 school year, with average losses of nearly $10 million.

Athletic programs are involved in "what we call an `arms race' where institutions are spending more and more," said Craig Goebel, a consultant with the Art and Science Group, which recently conducted a study on the issue for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

Berkeley officials say the department generates about 89 percent of its budget through ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, television rights fees, fundraising and endowment income.

But critics say that still translates into millions lost. In 2007, campus officials forgave about $31 million in accumulated deficits. At that time, a deal was struck in which future loans would be paid back.

In a letter to faculty, Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said the department has taken a 20 percent cut in campus funding and staff are taking furloughs like their colleagues in other departments.

The football team recently took a bus to play UCLA in hopes of saving money.

Some employees are under contract and are not subject to the campus-wide furloughs, but top coaches, including football Coach Jeff Tedford, whose $2.3 million salary is paid from private sources, have volunteered to cuts of at least 10 percent.

Birgeneau's salary is $393,120 this year after accounting for his furlough reduction.

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