During its unprecedented 11-win football season last fall, "chop wood" became the mantra of the Rutgers University football team, signifying the focus needed to win games as a perpetual underdog. Many now recognize Rutgers for its football success, which has brought national attention to an athletics program previously known better for sports that attract student and alumni interest but not large crowds.
This summer, six of those so-called "Olympic" teams face an ax of sorts.
With the New Jersey budget crisis that led to a state funding shortfall of more than $66 million at Rutgers, the state's flagship university has cut back on the academic side with employee layoffs and reduced class sessions. Last summer, Rutgers announced plans to move men's heavyweight and lightweight crew, men's and women's fencing, men's swimming and diving, and men's tennis from varsity to club status with significantly diminished financial backing from the university.
Vocal alumni, parents and team supporters were outraged. They have taken their concerns to the state's Legislature, which is considering adding as much as $1 million to the state budget in hopes of restoring the teams. The language in the bill, which is awaiting vote in the full assembly, is nonbinding.
Under state law, Rutgers officials do not have to take orders from the Legislature on these type of requests. While the university isn't commenting on the possibility of legislative action, its supporters say that lawmakers shouldn't meddle in athletics department and Board of Governors policies about how money is spent.
Persuading Rutgers to reinstate the six teams appears to be a long shot, but state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. said that if the Legislature adopts budget language next month that asks for resources to be spent in a certain way, the Rutgers administration would "likely be responsive." He is supporting a nonbinding resolution in the Senate that urges the board of governors to reconsider its decision to drop the varsity programs. The New Jersey Assembly's Higher Education Committee has come out in support of saving the teams.
"We believe the administration is going down a fundamentally wrong path that in the long term will hurt the university," Kean said. "Our responsibility is to act; we as a Legislature should use what's at our disposal."
The $1 million figure is an estimate of what it would cost to keep the six programs going as varsity teams for the upcoming academic year. Kean said he is particularly concerned about losing the teams to club status because it would mean dropping coaches and losing future scholarship spots that go to some of the brightest students who play sports at Rutgers.
Still, some are wondering why state lawmakers shied away from making budgetary proposals last year that would have spared academic and other programs at the state's public colleges, but now are happy to direct money to the sports teams. Darryl Greer, chief executive at the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, which represents nine public four-year institutions (but not Rutgers), said that he doesn't understand lawmakers' priorities in the midst of a financial crisis.
“I think it’s outrageous," Greer said. "Here we are, New Jersey is burning, we had the worst budget situation in the nation and higher education has been treated shabbily for years. And here you have grandstanding in the Legislature, which has no business micromanaging on issues such as these. If we're going to open up every dollar and decision made at the university to scrutiny, the state will come to a screeching halt."
Greer said he's surprised that Rutgers has been as patient as it has in listening to lawmaker complaints about the sports decision. Many in the state's Legislature are Rutgers graduates.
In the meantime, alumni have threatened to pull donations or suspend future giving, saying that the university is stubborn in its refusal to listen to alternative proposals. A group of donors say they offered earlier in the year to put up enough money to keep the teams going for next year. Student groups have also protested the university's decision. Newspaper editorials have largely sided with the angry observers, some noting that Rutgers is moving away from its athletics mission statement that promises a program that is "consistent with the pursuit of intellectual inquiry, educational discovery and academic success."
"The university has been unresponsive to students, alumni and now legislators," Kean said. "What I don't understand is how the administration ignores people who say they are willing to pay for [the teams]."
Robert Mulcahy, Rutgers' director of athletics, told The Star Ledger that "I appreciate everyone's good will in this and the fact that people are willing to help out. But underlying all of this is the fact that we need an additional $3 million as it is, to fund our remaining sports in an appropriate manner in terms of coaches, trainers, administrative help and scholarships. Excellence requires tough decisions in distribution of revenues, which is why we can't be all things to all people."
Rutgers maintains that it would save next year about $800,000 from removing the six teams from intercollegiate play, and that its 24 remaining varsity teams would still tie for the largest total of any Big East Conference institution that competes in Division-IA football. The university has also said that the move will help it comply with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. A Rutgers spokesman said that the university is committed to extending the scholarships of current athletes.
Supporters of the six sports say that with an athletics budget of about $35.5 million (in 2005-6), savings of less than $1 million are not significant. They contend that the decision is not based on economics but rather philosophy -- one signal that Rutgers is moving to become a football and basketball university. (Major upgrades are being made to the football stadium, and its coach is receiving a substantial raise.)
Lisa Pantel, the mother of a Rutgers fencer who heads a support group called the Coalition to Save Our Sports, said she is troubled by what she sees as the institution's changing values.
"This decision is one that’s being made across the country," she said. " With growing emphasis on spectator sports, Olympic teams are being cut and there's a lack of understanding of what these students bring to the university. The athletes are often the very top students at the university."
Karl Engelman, a Rutgers alumnus who is helping to organize the campaign, said he and other alumni aren't against big-time sports but are upset that the university is promoting the big-time sports over other teams.
Pantel said that because Rutgers is the only state university to offer high-level fencing, for instance, cutting that opportunity is unfair to in-state students. "Colleges should generally be autonomous, but autonomy comes with strings attached," she said in an e-mail. "Governing boards must act as public servants."