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Putting Academics First

February 22, 2006

Five years ago, Allen University announced with fanfare that it was bringing back its football program, which it had discontinued more than three decades earlier, in 1968. In several ways, the program succeeded: It helped build enrollment, not only of the players themselves but of students drawn to the small South Carolina liberal arts college by the appeal of a football team, and over the last several years, the team improved, finishing this year with its first winning record since returning. Alumni, not surprisingly, rallied around the program.

But by last fall, it had also become increasingly clear to administrators at the historically black university that football was a luxury Allen could not afford. With an annual price tag that officials estimated at $1.4 million, which included the cost of educating the team's players, the football program ate up a disproportionately large chunk of Allen's overall expenditures, which its 2004 federal tax filing put at about $8.6 million.

So last month, Charles E. Young, who became Allen's president in 2004, and the university's trustees decided to shut the program down. Such decisions are rare, as alumni and donor pressure often persuades college administrators to stick with popular sports programs even in the face of mounting debts. And predictably, Allen players and alumni are expressing unhappiness with the decision.

But the current group of administrators at Allen, which is affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, felt that for a college of its size -- about 600 students -- and with many needs, "this was what the president had to do for the sake of academics," says Thomas Neil, the former chairman of the business and economics department who became athletics director in January.

"Everybody liked having football," says Neil. "But if football is constraining academics, and it was, then you've got to go with academics," said Neil. "That's why this was the correct choice."

As is often the case, the decision to start the football program back up in 2001 seems to have been driven more by emotion than by prudent planning. Alumni promised to help meet the new program's costs, but while "the passion was there," says Neil, the "understructure of the program in terms of funding was not there." (News reports indicated that an alumni club contributed about $40,000 a year to the program, which competed in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.) Expenses like the cost of renting out high school stadiums for the team to play in, among others, and a $300,000 annual scholarship tab ate up "liquid assets," Neil says, that might otherwise have been used for academic purposes.

"When that money goes there, you don't have the liquidity to do what you need to build the academic program," says Neil. "You might, for instance, be able to get the [National Science Foundation] to upgrade equipment in your labs. But to do that, you also need to be able to bring in a Ph.D. in chemistry, and if you're pouring $100,000 into football, you don't have that $100,000 to put into the Ph.D. in chemistry."

Going forward, Young has his eye on several new dormitories and other facilities. And he has asked Neil to decide on an appropriate sports program for an institution of Allen's size and resources -- which will not include football.

 

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