Siren Song of Sports

March 18, 2011

Sure, California is in the midst of a major budget crisis. And, yes, college students across the state are protesting potential cuts to higher education and the tuition increases they may necessitate. But the siren song of big-time athletics is calling the University of California at San Diego. Administrators there recently announced that if their students approve a significant increase in athletics fees to pay for it, they will try to push their sports program to Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association so that it can join most of its UC counterparts in the perceived limelight.

A feasibility study, exploring options for reclassifying to Division I and adding a football team, was released last week by the UCSD Associated Students. The $28,000 study, commissioned last year by the student government, was conducted by Athletics Staffing & Consultants — a company run by Carl McAloose, who while athletics director at Florida Gulf Coast University helped it move to Division I in 2008. Though it is 118 pages long, the study makes almost no reference to the dire financial situation in which California and the UC system currently find themselves.

Ultimately, the study concludes that it is feasible for UCSD to move to Division I and join the Big West Conference, but not have a football team. Since Division I is lifting its current moratorium on new members in August 2011 and the Big West is actively courting new institutions, timing is of the essence.

To pay for this move, the study states that UCSD would need to increase athletics revenue by nearly $4.8 million by 2012-13, bringing its athletics budget to approximately $12 million. Among other possible revenue sources, the study recommends adding new student fees and a new $500,000 institutional subsidy of the athletics department to pay for the more expensive scholarship requirements, additional staff and facilities improvements.

UCSD moved from Division III — the NCAA’s non-scholarship division — to Division II in 2000. But it did not start awarding athletics scholarships until 2006, when Division II mandated all its members do so and UCSD students approved fee increases to pay for them. Division II institutions typically offer fewer sports and cost far less to operate than Division I institutions. For instance, while nearly all Division I athletics programs lose money, UCSD’s current Division II athletics program operates in the black because it is funded almost entirely by student fees. And while nearly all Division I athletics programs receive direct institutional subsidization, UCSD’s program does not.

Despite the program’s self-sustainability via student fees and considerable success in Divisions II and III — it has won 29 national championships in nine sports — some UCSD students believe it is in the institution’s best interest to move to Division I. The Associated Students Council passed a resolution last week giving itself the opportunity to eventually ask the student body if it would support what the study finds is needed to make the move — introducing a one-time fee of $100 for each new undergraduate and boosting the annual student athletics fee, currently $118 per term, by 50 percent.

"UCSD kind of has this tepid reputation of not having the best student life," Utsav Gupta, last year's student government president who helped commission the study, told the San Diego Union-Tribune after the vote. "We’re known primarily as an academic school, which is a great thing. Athletics can serve as a very strong rallying point. The students want it."

UCSD has been flooded with applications of late. It received 70,474 freshman and transfer applications for next fall — the second-highest number of applications received by a UC campus. These increases happened despite the study's warning that UCSD "may lose some ... students to other universities that have Division I athletics programs," such as the Universities of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles.

And not all students agree with Gupta — including this year’s student government president.

“To have the audacity to have a conversation about this right now is completely ridiculous,” Wafa Ben Hassine, a senior political science major and president of the Associated Students, said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “In my opinion, it shows a severe lack of prioritizing what’s important. We’re being so badly affected by budget cuts right now. I mean, we have three libraries closing down here.”

Hassine said she took part in student protests of proposed education cuts and tuition increases in Sacramento earlier this month. She added that for students at UCSD to ask other students to pay an increased athletics fee in tough economic times is not only “insensitive” but also “shows a lack of consistency” in the message students are sending to university and state leaders.

“Moving to Division I isn’t even relevant to the issues we’re facing as students,” Hassine said. “The pillars of the university are suffering tremendously. I really think it’s not the time to be talking about this.”

Some UCSD faculty have also spoken out firmly against a potential move to Division I, questioning whether a big-time athletics program would fit on their campus.

“Our student-athletes are amazingly talented and dedicated, as is indicated by their above-university-average academic standing and by numerous national titles and All-American designations; yet very few of our student-athletes were courted by premier Division I athletic programs,” Daniel Wulbert, math professor, wrote in an e-mail to the San Diego Union-Tribune last year. “I would hate to see us put in an athletic program with full scholarships, special admissions, and academic tutoring for athletes, and with coaches paid more than academic deans; and in which our current student-athletes and coaches would not be welcome.”

Joel Sobel, economics professor and vice chair of the San Diego Division of the Academic Senate, said the faculty body does not yet have a formal response to the feasibility study. Still, in the event that students choose to increase their fees, he said the faculty body will only be consulted in an advisory fashion by the institution about the move to Division I.

Sobel, who has been at UCSD since 1978, would not divulge his personal feelings about a potential move to Division I but did say that there was much debate before the 2000 decision to move from Division III to Division II.

“The old arguments aren’t going to go away, and the new arguments will raise additional questions,” Sobel said. “Everyone on campus, including the administration and the students, are aware that it’s a troubled time for the state of California and the university system and knows that any decision to divert funds to or increase students fees … for athletics will be talked about and scrutinized. If that proposal is put forward [to move to Division I], then the administration and other officials will be asked to carefully justify it.”

Earl Edwards, UCSD's director of athletics since 2000, supports the students’ interest in at least thinking about a transition to Division I. He said that if a move is not made this time — because students do not approve a fee increase or the Big West does not invite the institution to join its conference — he will advocate that the university consider it again in the future.

“I feel like the students are right that we should look at moving to Division I,” Edwards said. “I say that because our profile academically and our large enrollment is just much more like a Division I institution. I also say that because — the conference we’re currently in [the California Collegiate Athletic Association] — we have very little in common with the other member institutions. It just makes a sense for our university as a whole.”

Edwards asserted that if students approve a fee increase to pay for the cost of moving to Division I and supporting a more expensive athletics program, the institution would almost certainly make the move. He noted that the UCSD administration would have the authority to approve the language of the student referendum and any potential fee changes it recommends prior to a vote.

Still, Edwards said that just because students might approve a fee increase does not necessarily mean that the institution would subsidize its athletics department.

“The university could say they’d subsidize the [athletics budget] somewhat, but that hasn’t been the practice in the past,” Edwards said. “So, unless the university changes its position on that, there likely would be no subsidy and students would provide a majority of the funds.… I wouldn’t be in favor of a [student] referendum that doesn’t sufficiently supply funds for this.”

Edwards acknowledged that it is “a difficult time to ask for fee increases of any kind,” but he reiterated that the primary reason the institution is even considering such a move is because of student interest.

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