Pandemic-Era Priorities

The University of Oregon's student government voted to end financial contributions, by way of student fees, to the athletics department. They want the money used instead to help students who are struggling financially.

February 22, 2021
Icon Sportswire/Contributor via Getty Images
The student section at Autzen Stadium during a football game, pre-pandemic.

Members of the student government at the University of Oregon were reviewing their $17 million annual budget last summer when they came across a decades-old contract with the athletics department, which gave students access to tickets for football and basketball games. About 10 percent of the student government budget, or $1.7 million, was going to the athletics department each year in exchange for “free” student tickets to athletic events, according to members of the Student Senate’s Athletics and Contracts Finance Committee.

The discovery immediately raised red flags. The university had canceled athletic events during the spring term because of the pandemic, and students were not attending any sporting events on campus. The Ducks' upcoming fall football season was also in question.

What's more, committee members said, the tickets aren't free, and they're not guaranteed.

Under the current contract, students pay $25.50 each during the fall, winter and spring terms for access to tickets, even if they don’t attend any athletic events, according to Annika Mayne, a student senator and chair of the committee. The fee gives students access to a lottery for a game ticket, not an actual ticket. The charge is part of a mandatory $271.50 Incidental Fee, which funds student government programs and clubs and is paid by students each term.

According to the university, the contract has been in place since 1987. Even so, members of the Associated Students of the University of Oregon, or ASUO, are now questioning how many students even attend games during a normal year and asking why they should be paying for games this fall when no one knows when they will be played again or when fans will be allowed back in the stands, Mayne said.

“Like many other students have been realizing, that level of uncertainty doesn’t work,” Mayne said.

She noted that the pandemic has created more important financial concerns for some students, particularly among those dealing with food or housing insecurity. She and other finance committee members believe the athletics fees should be used to address those needs rather than to pay for athletics tickets, and they terminated the ASUO's contract with the athletics department.

Like their counterparts at colleges and universities across the country, the ASUO's focus on athletics and other student fees reflects a growing financial activism by young people worried about the long-term economic consequences of the pandemic and intent on not having their colleges' financial burdens passed on to students. As a result, they are increasingly reviewing the funding and spending priorities of their institutions, especially those related to athletics, and are more closely scrutinizing how students' tuition and fees are being spent.

In the wake of the many adjustments colleges have made and are still making because of the pandemic, students are increasingly calling on university leaders to justify charging the same tuition and fees at institutions that have moved instruction online and scaled back on-campus services and sporting events normally considered part of the college experience.

Recently at Rutgers University, a student-led petition to reduce a fee that partly went to athletics garnered tens of thousands of signatures. (Rutgers faculty members took administrators to court to force them to disclose information on athletics spending.) Students at several institutions have filed lawsuits and held tuition strikes demanding lowered tuition for online classes or shortened semesters. In ways big and small, students are trying to break down the traditional barriers between themselves and their colleges' decision makers.

Nick Schlereth, a sport management professor at Coastal Carolina University who studies athletics department spending, said in an email that conversations about student spending on higher education typically revolve around the cost of tuition, whereas fees are not commonly discussed. That's starting to change, he said.

The ASUO decision could set an example for "student governments across the country to re-evaluate their fee allocation and usage," Schlereth said. "It also brings to light the reliance on student fees and funds directly from the university to support an auxiliary service."

At Oregon, Mayne, the student senator, took particular issue with administrators describing the tickets as “free.” That's how President Michael Schill referred to them in a recent email to students, faculty and staff members.

“It’s this notion that students paying money gets them something that’s free, and that’s not true,” she said. “It’s just so inequitable to have students pay for something they’re not using.”

According to Oregon Athletics, about 65 percent of students attend at least one sports game during a typical year. Jenna Travers, a student senator and member of the committee that reviewed ASUO's athletics contribution, pointed out that this means 7,600 of the 21,800 students enrolled in fall 2020 do not attend games. The lottery system for students to claim available football and basketball tickets online has also resulted in some students continuously missing out on getting tickets, Travers said.

Jimmy Stanton, senior associate athletics director of communications, said in an email that during the fall term, when the football season is in full swing, the lottery system provides 4,000 student tickets for each game. For men's and women's basketball games, the system has 1,900 student seats available for each game, Stanton wrote. All tickets in the lottery system for football games are typically claimed, but for basketball, there can be hundreds left over, he wrote. If students miss out on tickets in the lottery, the department sells any leftover tickets on a single-game basis for $10 to $20, depending on the game, he wrote.

"The allocation of seats through the lottery provides all UO students access to tickets for football, with many students attending multiple games throughout the course of the season," Stanton wrote. "The passion and strong engagement of our students while cheering on the Ducks creates a tremendous advantage during home events for our student-athletes at Autzen Stadium, Matthew Knight Arena, and across all of our athletics venues, and we appreciate all of their positive energy and impact."

The ASUO leaders believe students have pressing needs that take priority over athletics. Last month, the organization decided the $1.7 million could be better spent on need-based programs for students and ended the athletics contract starting in the 2021 fall term, Mayne said. ASUO proposed the funding be used for new initiatives, such as making menstrual products available in women's bathrooms, providing a textbook subsidy to students in need and hiring new staff members to assist students with basic housing needs and legal advocacy, a statement from ASUO posted on Instagram said.

“Buying into the athletics contract is a mandate forced upon all students during each billing period regardless of one’s interest in attending sporting events,” the statement said. “We should be paying for the basic needs that our classmates may seek … We at ASUO have heard the calls for increased student assistance become amplified during such dire times.”

Schill approved the ASUO’s termination of the contract on Feb. 18. Kay Jarvis, director of public affairs and issues management, declined to comment on behalf of Schill and other university officials.

However, Schill’s email to students last week and a recently published 2021 budget proposal by the university’s Tuition and Fee Advisory Board indicated administrators are considering a new, stand-alone athletics ticket fee of $29.50 per term to replace the ASUO contribution. The fee would only apply to incoming students, as the university has a fixed tuition and fee guarantee for current students and cannot raise their rates further than already planned.

“Without some sort of fee structure in place, many students would not be able to afford to pay for individual football or basketball tickets and may be less inclined to attend other sporting events without the current level of student access,” the budget proposal said. “Further, the [board] worried that lack of student access may have adverse impacts on the UO’s ability to provide new students with a well-rounded, positive student experience and on the success of student athletes and athletic programs.”

Stanton wrote that the fee will produce the same amount of money as was provided to the athletics department under the contract. He noted that Oregon Athletics is allocated less money from student fees than its peers in the Pac-12 Conference, the NCAA Division I league that the university competes in and is "among the lowest in the country" for student allocations in Division I overall.

"Nine out of the 10 other public Pac-12 institutions either charge a direct student athletics ticket fee or allocate significant funds to athletics to pay for student athletics tickets out of a student incidental fee," the tuition and fee board's proposal said.

The proposal and Schill’s email stated that the suggested new fee “is the result of the ASUO Senate decision.” Mayne said the athletics department and university are to blame for charging all students for access to athletic events that not all students attend.

The tuition and fee board also considered the “the optics of adding a new fee like this during the pandemic,” the proposal said. But Stanton said the athletics department, like many others nationwide, is also facing a budget deficit due to the pandemic and estimates $63 million in revenue loss for fiscal year 2021.

Some students and alumni disapprove of the ASUO pulling out of the contract with the athletics department.

“I’d be more receptive if the money was going towards something everyone would benefit from, but it’s not,” said Scott Roth, a 2019 alumnus who was president of the student cheering section at Ducks games. “Without a doubt people who need assistance with that should receive it, but [ASUO is] claiming it will help a majority of campus when in reality it won’t.”

Roth interned with the athletics department and said he knows students who chose to attend the university because of its strong athletics culture.

“I lost count of how many games I actually attended, but the number is well over 150 for all sports,” he said. “I certainly felt closer to other students because we were all there for the same reason: cheering on the Ducks.”

Roth said he rarely had a problem getting game tickets through the university’s lottery system.

Instituting a new fee to replace the ASUO contribution is “the best possible solution,” he said.

Mayne was “disappointed and really astounded” by the proposal to introduce a new fee. She said university officials and students who support the athletics contract contend that the ASUO's decision to end its contribution is “destroying the heartbeat” of the institution. But athletics has “nothing” to do with the educational functions of the university or providing needed services to students, she said.

“The heartbeat of the school should be providing education to students and helping students with their basic needs,” she said. “If the university doesn’t want to take that task on, then we will.”


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