Another Round at Rutgers

At an institution where many feel athletics spending is outrageously high, history keeps repeating itself.
August 24, 2011

The turmoil unfolding around the sports program at Rutgers University right now would set a standard for contentiousness and conflict at most institutions. At New Jersey's most visible public university, though, it's old hat.

Recent articles in USA Today and Bloomberg News revealed that Rutgers has driven athletic spending to unprecedented levels, higher than any public institution in the six biggest football conferences, with institutional subsidies making up a full 40 percent of the athletic department's budget, more than at any other public university. Department spending increased from $41 million in 2006 to $64 million in 2010, while revenue grew from $21 million to $37 million.

On Friday the Rutgers faculty union responded to the news articles by calling on the board to rethink subsidizing athletics at $27 million a year (totaling $115 million since 2006, USA Today reported) at a time when salary freezes are in effect for faculty. “When [Richard P.] McCormick became president, he announced that athletics would need to be self-supporting within five years. This will be his 10th year in office and the subsidy is now the highest in the nation,” the union wrote. “The Rutgers Board of Governors must acknowledge that the resources exist within the university budget to support our faculty and staff, our academic research programs, our undergraduate and graduate students. Anything less is to admit that athletics is truly valued more than academics.”

In a statement sent to Inside Higher Ed last week, university spokesman E.J. Miranda said the athletic department is still taking “significant steps” toward a revenue-generating program, and argued that Rutgers remains committed to its core mission of teaching, research and service – and that is reflected in where the money goes.

“The university’s direct support to athletics represents only about 1 percent of the Rutgers budget,” Miranda wrote. “While athletics opens a door to the university, it is our outstanding academic programs, world-class faculty and unique campus community that make Rutgers a premier institution of higher learning.” (Inside Higher Ed also reached out to multiple other sources within and outside the university who might have been expected to view athletics spending sympathetically, including athletics boosters, but received no responses.)

More of the Same

These are hardly new issues at Rutgers, where the now-defunct Rutgers 1000, a group of faculty, alumni and students, went toe-to-toe with university administrators in the mid-1990s to try to get Rutgers to leave the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I-A competitive level. They failed, but their efforts helped to bring about the resignation of then-President Francis L. Lawrence.

In 2007, the university cut six participatory sports to help close an $80 million athletics budget shortfall.

Rutgers's history makes longtime professors skeptical that the latest round of roiling will have much effect.

“I don’t think I’m being pessimistic. I think I’m being realistic,” said William C. Dowling, an English professor at Rutgers who fought the rise of big-time athletics there, and wrote about it in Confessions of a Spoilsport: My Life and Hard Times Fighting Sports Corruption at an Old Eastern University. If things go on as they are now, Dowling said, Rutgers will be a lost cause within 15 years. "It’ll stop attracting the best students, the top faculty will flee – that’s already happening.”

He and others worry that the university’s direction is driving away the talent that makes Rutgers good. The aforementioned salary freezes for all the faculty and unionized staff also meant those employees didn’t get the raises they had negotiated before the freeze -- which didn’t apply to head coaches -- was announced. In the meantime, the university picked up the bulk of the tab for a $100-million football stadium expansion and renovation.

And as school spending on athletics has gone up, state spending on the school has gone the other way. Bloomberg reported that, "In the three fiscal years through June 30, 2010, athletic revenue excluding support from the university climbed $7.6 million, or 25 percent, according to school records. The department also took fatter subsidies, including a 21 percent rise in university aid and 21 percent more from fees levied on the 28,904 undergraduates." Meanwhile, state funding for Rutgers will have declined by 10 percent (or by $29 million to $262 million) during the three fiscal years ending in June. In 2006, the university suffered a $50 million budget cut. The money shortages have become evident in facilities with cracked and leaky ceilings, thin walls and the elimination of phone and fax lines, faculty members say.

“Our members -- some of them don’t dislike football or athletics. But when you think about balance, I think that’s when they start to get a little concerned, or upset, or agitated,” said Patrick Nowlan, executive director of the Rutgers faculty union chapter of the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers. Case in point, Nowlan said: the first football game of this year falls on the day classes start -- and to make room for game-day parking, faculty and staff have to leave the campus lots by 2 p.m. that day.

“You pride yourself as an [Association of American Universities] member; none of that is about athletics. That’s about the quality of your faculty, the students you recruit, the research you do, the service you provide,” Nowlan said. “Something has to give at some point, and it won’t be us. It won’t be the faculty that give.”

'Voices in the Wilderness'

But at this point, are the faculty even fighting? There may be a few outspoken voices, but the days of mobilized opposition appear to be over. Mark Killingsworth, a professor of economics who has been at Rutgers since 1978, doesn't even think most faculty members are even complaining, let alone fighting. They just don't see the use anymore, he said; if they're not demoralized, as is usually the case, they're apathetic.

"I think the faculty are typical of faculty everywhere. They do not like conflict -- they're academic personalities," Killingsworth said. "The idea that you're going to man the barricades and storm into the palace is absurd. It's like asking them to grow a second head or something." On the other hand, he said, many faculty members didn't realize until the USA Today article just how bad things are -- meaning there could be a movement yet.

Norm McNatt, a former administrator who left Rutgers for Princeton University shortly after Lawrence took over as president, agreed that faculty are reluctant to speak out. And as for those who have? "They've been voices in the wilderness, really, because very few others have joined them or even seconded their criticisms," McNatt said. "I mean, one really has to put one's head on the block to become critical."

Catherine A. Lugg, a professor of education and treasurer of the faculty union, believes, as do others, that the university’s trajectory toward big-time sports began with a few outspoken members of the Board of Governors who wanted Rutgers to become a football powerhouse -- and the power and tunnel vision of those members made voices of opposition irrelevant, they say. Even as things haven’t turned out as planned, the university has kept with it. “I think it’s just the proverbial snowball coming down a hill, picking up speed,” Lugg said -- a few problematic decisions made years ago have been exacerbated with time.

As Lugg pointed out, Rutgers’s very geography works against a unified fan culture. The disjointed main campus is actually broken into five pieces, requiring a bus to get from one end to the other. And it sits between the two American professional sports meccas of Philadelphia and New York. While Rutgers football undoubtedly draws more of a crowd now than it did in the past, it still finished 4-8 last year. (A losing record of 59-63 over 10 seasons makes the $2 million salary of head coach Greg Schiano, already a symbol of misdirected priorities for many frustrated faculty members, even more contentious.)

“I don’t think anyone got up first thing in the morning and said, ‘We’re just going to decide to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort that won’t succeed’…. But it’s kind of like, when do you fish or cut bait?” Lugg said. “Athletics -- it adds to student culture, yes, but should it displace academic mission? No. I’m a former high school athlete. I love sports. But you know, it’s an issue of priorities.”

Boards to Blame?

When Rutgers became a public institution in 1956, state legislation created a Board of Governors as the governing body; all 11 members are selected by the governor or the advisory Board of Trustees. The 59-member trustee board consists mostly of alumni and charter members chosen by current trustees and by the governor. Some argue that this structure allows for a sort of revolving door in which a small group of people with a shared goal -- in this case, big-time athletics -- can control the board's direction, with no regard for input from faculty or administrators.

McNatt said as much in a white paper he and some other staff presented to McCormick on the eve of his arrival at Rutgers. The paper asked McCormick to reform the dual-board structure; the president "declined and made it very clear that he was the vassal of the governors and trustees who selected him, and that their intent, and his priority, was to continue the drive for success in big-time athletics," McNatt said.

"The unique terms of the 1956 Act set Rutgers apart from most other state universities by creating a framework for governance that potentially preserves the university’s independence and insulates it from political pressures. It also, however, put in place a trustee nomination and selection process that has virtually excluded from Rutgers’ boards those distinguished, broad-gauged leaders, both alumni and non-alumni, whose demonstrated records of achievement and independent judgment could best serve Rutgers’ interests," the white paper says. "Over several decades, an inexorable pattern of lock-step succession has become the archetype for service on the Rutgers boards: a long-active member of an alumni association is nominated by his or her association to a six-year term on the Board of Trustees, an appointment the trustees have 'assigned' to that alumni association such that nomination by the association assures election. Six years later the alumni trustee is re-elected as a charter trustee and takes up another six-year term (but possibly up to 12 years if re-elected or elected to an un-expired term). When an appropriate vacancy occurs, the trustee then goes on to a seat on the Board of Governors, where another twelve years of appointments can be put together by a combination of partial, full, and public terms. By such devices, a relatively young alumnus could spend most of his or her adult life on one or both Rutgers’ boards."

Others, such as Killingsworth, say blaming the boards is too easy. True, the Board of Governors dictated the path Rutgers has taken, but that's no different from any other major university, he said. Killingsworth doesn't take issue with money going toward sports; as he pointed out, he's a University of Michigan alum who watches football every Saturday. But when the money feeding football is being taken away from the institution, that's when there's a problem; for Killingsworth, the annual ritual of an e-mail from his dean announcing more cuts, followed a few months later by the discovery that the athletics budget has grown again, is getting old.

Unhappy Students

Not all students are thrilled with the developments of recent years, either, said Rohini Bhaumik, a Rutgers junior who has tried to reassemble some sort of organized opposition akin to Rutgers 1000, with which her older sister was heavily involved. But the campus climate makes it tough, she said.

“Unfortunately most students at Rutgers have kind of resigned themselves to the fact that the administration is leading the budget in the direction that we don’t want to go,” Bhaumik said. Another difficulty, she added, is that even though about $8.5 million of the subsidies come from student fees, as USA Today reported, students often don’t know something’s going on until it hits them in a more tangible way -- say, when their student club gets cut. “A lot of people don’t realize the bigger picture” until that happens, she said. “But there is definitely a small, vocal minority within the student body of students who are very much aware of what is happening. They’re vocal about how disappointed they are.”

The son of Lisa Pantel, who formed the Coalition to Save Our Sports after the six teams were cut in 2007, wound up transferring to Brown University after the group’s one-year campaign failed to save men’s fencing and the five other teams. Pantel’s son began taking courses at Rutgers during his senior year in high school, and despite having been accepted to other Ivy League and highly selective institutions, opted for Rutgers in large part for its fencing team.

Pantel still believes Rutgers is an exceptional institution, albeit one that’s lost its way a bit. “It just got off track, and it needs to get back on track,” she said. “Rutgers isn’t viewed as a top choice among top students in the state, and particularly top students who are looking for an affordable school. And that’s a shame, and that’s Rutgers’s loss, and I think that’s a consequence of some of these decisions that were made that resulted in excessive spending in the spectator sports areas and not in the academic area.”

'Always Hopeful'

McNatt said that over the years some board members and other officials have questioned the spending. But the “revolving door” of trustees and governors has given athletics the upper hand, he says – and, despite the turnover that’s happened on the board, “really not much has changed.”

Asked whether a new president might open the door to a new direction, away from big-time sports, McNatt said, “I doubt if anybody who expressed such thoughts in a job interview with the presidential search committee would get very far. That’s just the way it is."

Lugg is “always hopeful” -- one can’t work in education without being a hopeful person, she said. But it’s frustrating.

“It’s always, ‘In a few years it’ll all get better.’ Now, I’ve heard this song and dance for at least eight years,” Lugg said. “It’s like everything – there are winners and there are losers. And we have to make a decision as a corporate body: Do we really want to continue down this path where basically we’re serving as a farm team for the NFL? Is that our mission?”


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