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University Of Kentucky Athletics Under Assault From the U.K Faculty

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The beginning of this article requires a disclaimer -- I am not privy to the detailed budgets of either the University of Kentucky or the UK Athletics Administration.  I am relying on the accuracy of the referenced reporting, and that is always dangerous -- sometimes the reports spin things in a way that are, intentionally or not, misleading.

The UK faculty is taking dead aim at the UK Athletics Administration, and is essentially demanding more money from the UKAA, even if it means shutting down some of the sports programs it funds.  The faculty representatives to the UK Board of Directors have generated two articles in the Herald-Leader recently (links to follow contextually), one raising the issue and one responding to a UKAA defense on its website.

The relationship between a college athletics program and a university faculty is, as far as I can tell, necessarily adversarial to some degree.  College sports generates a tremendous amount of revenue, but it also generates a tremendous amount of financial liability.

In the rare case where the athletics department is not an actual drain on university finances such as at UK (the NCAA reports that only about two dozen university athletics departments are "self-sustaining"), the university faculties tend to demand as much of that money as they can possibly receive, applying the truism that the mission of a university is eduction, and that's where the vast majority of the funds derived by activities should be spent.

Athletics departments and their proponents argue that it takes a large amount of the available funds to remain competitive, and the reason that a "self-sufficient" program is possible is because of the quality of the teams that it fields, particularly in the so-called "revenue sports" of college football and basketball.

Both arguments unquestionably have merit.  Universities are ostensibly in place for the purpose of educating the citizens of a state and/or doing valuable research in any number of important disciplines.  This effort is expensive and requires many millions of dollars in revenue.

Athletics programs provide a nexus to draw students to a university.  Very few non-scholarship students these days come to a university purely because of its reputation in a particular discipline.  Decisions to attend universities often encompass the entire experience, including the cost of tuition and the social climate, of which athletics programs are a large part.  Successful athletics programs like UK's elevate the national profile of the school both inside and outside of Kentucky, make the university a more attractive destination to prospective students, and allow the university to charge higher tuition.

In their most recent assault on the UKAA via the Herald-Leader, the faculty representative of the Board of Directors and his predecessor in that position continue to criticize the Athletics Administration for not doing enough to support the academic mission of UK:

Joe Peek, the faculty representative on UK's Board of Trustees, and his predecessor in that position, Ernie Yanarella, have called for the school to change course and make academics the top priority.

[...]

"The future of Kentucky is tied to enhancing the educational attainment of its citizens, not making the Final Four," he wrote before adding, "although, like satisfying a drug addiction, making the Final Four can make people feel good for a little while until they crash back to the reality of living in a state that typically is ranked 47th, 48th, or 49th in most meaningful statistics.

These are very strong words -- too strong, in fact.  They ignore the reality that, for good or ill, people value amusements like college sports over education.  Peek can argue until he is blue in the face that things ought not be that way, but that argument is specious for two reasons -- it ignores reality, and overvalues education.

Did I just say education is overvalued?  Why, yes, I did, although I didn't mean it in a broad-brush context.  The value of education, like it or not, is determined by the individual, and attempts by Peek, Yanarella and others in the educational establishment to try to shame Kentuckians to value it more using drug addiction metaphors is not only a logical fallacy, it is unworthy of an educator.

Where they do have a point is that the UKAA should be making the most concerted effort possible to direct funds toward the academic mission of the university consistent with the conflicting need to keep the athletics department from becoming uncompetitive, losing the stature that is the primary reason it is so successful. I get the impression that the UKAA is disinclined to do as much as perhaps it could, in no small part due to public scoldings and irrational arguments such as those put forward by Peek and Yanarella.

Educators, at Kentucky and everywhere else, have a history of disrespect for athletics programs and a refusal to put them in the proper context of the overall university experience.  It is the age-old feud between jocks and smarts made manifest in adulthood, all the more unseemly for that fact.

Unfortunately, the education establishment at UK doesn't seem to be satisfied with a non-combative approach.  They basically think that the long-term success of the athletics program should be sacrificed on the altar of  financial expediency.  Due to recent state fiscal issues, the Commonwealth has cut back on its contributions not just to UK, but to all state universities, which has forced an increase in tuition over the last 10 years at Kentucky to make up the deficit.

The Kentucky Athletics blog Cat Scratches recently defended the UKAA's commitment to the University:

A recent article from the Lexington Herald-Leader reports that only 2 percent of Kentucky's $79.38 million budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year was donated to the university's scholarship fund. That number is presented unfavorably in comparison with other Southeastern Conference schools in the Herald-Leader report on March 20.

Those numbers neglect the $14,984,086 the athletics department has contributed or paid to the university in the 2010-11 fiscal year for scholarships, royalties and expenses. Since Barnhart arrived in 2002, the department has directed nearly $100 million to the university.

Now, I must point out here that there are some mitigating factors that might be in play here of which I am unaware.  In the fist place, some schools claiming "athletic self-sufficiency" get to make that claim at the expense of the university in the form of "scholarship waviers," where the university waives the need for the athletics administration to fund the athlete's scholarship, usually on the basis of Title IX.  The UKAA doesn't mention that this is the case at Kentucky, so I'm assuming it isn't, but that assumption could be incorrect.

ESPN claims that the NCAA found that no college athletics departments were completely self-sustaining, and apparently this claim is based upon the fact that all universities charge athletics fees as part of their tuition, to the tune of some $795 per student on average as of 2008-09 according to USA Today.  It is important to note that Kentucky charges $38 per student, accounting for some 0.95% of its budget, according to the Cat Scratches article above.  If that is the lone source of university participation, it is certainly more than made up by direct contributions of 1.7 million/year by the UKAA to the university, making the ESPN's claim look specious to me.

The bottom line is that the faculty are trying to minimize the fact that the UKAA spends nearly 15 million dollars per year paying for student tuition that is one of the primary sources of UK funding.  The academics deride this important fact thus:

"It is still the case that UKAA contributes (as in donates) very little of their revenues to UK," Peek wrote. "However, they do make much larger internal transfers to UK, but that is as payment for services provided by UK to UKAA, such as tuition for athletes. So I do not see how fees for service can be counted as a contribution.

This is an offensive and incredibly dishonest statement.  But for the existence and success of the UKAA, these students would not come to UK, and the school would have to make up almost 15 million dollars per year in scholarship money.  The University is not providing a "service" for the UKAA -- any reasonable reading of the situation would observe that Peek is turning reality on its head here.  It is a nugatory argument that the faculty should find embarrassing to have been made on their behalf.

Adding fuel to the fire is this recent article in the Herald-Leader that paints the UKAA in a rather justifiably negative light.  It seems that the UKAA wanted a low-interest loan from the university to the tune of about 3.1 million dollars to fund new scoreboards for the football stadium:

The university dropped a plan to give the UK Athletics Association a $3.1 million loan to help it install the $6.25 million project after intense criticism from UK faculty and staff members. The project will now be financed entirely by private funds, including a withdrawal of up to $4.6 million from an athletics department endowment fund.

This move was a public-relations gaffe by UK Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart.  Asking the university to loan the UKAA money at a low rate to fund this sort of project is offensive to the claim of "self-sufficiency," and makes the UKAA look like it is trying to take advantage of its influence to the detriment of the educational mission of the university.  The faculty was perfectly right to be outraged at this plan, even if it does nothing to defend their assault on the UKAA generally.

I am not saying that the UKAA is right and the faculty demands for more money from it are wrong, although I do find Peek and Yanarella's arguments supporting this position entirely offensive to reason.  What has become apparent, however, is that the next president of the University of Kentucky will have to find a way to mitigate the divisions between athletics and education that are becoming an increasing embarrassment to the university. 

Fighting this battle in the media is not going to draw a single student or student-athlete to the UK, is not helping its reputation as an educational institution, and is, on the whole, entirely counterproductive.  It's not that the debate isn't worth having -- it surely is -- but to have it on such strident terms and in such a public way is destructive and damaging, and can only serve to alienate the two sides further.

This feuding needs to stop.  Hopefully, the new president can moderate the rhetoric and create an atmosphere of mutual cooperation that will benefit both sides.