7.12.09

I WISH IT COULD BE THAT EASY. At Phi Beta Cons, Jane Shaw lauds Hofstra and Northeastern discontinuing their football programs.
At first, I was pleased with the news. Major sports — football, especially — are costly to universities and often threaten the educational mission. To drop football, given its strong proponents, is a courageous step, one that wouldn’t be taken without good reason.
After further review, she sees a threat to the continued existence of the private universities.
Is dropping football another sign that state universities are “crowding out” private universities? Private schools, which depend heavily on tuition, must weigh their priorities carefully, while state universities can more easily tap into taxpayer resources. Could dropping football, while eminently sensible in some cases, push more students to the public schools with their well-funded athletic programs and ample state revenues?
Let's take this proposition seriously. If she is suggesting that many potential collegians are not serious, more interested in beer 'n circus and the rabbit culture than in cultivating habits of mind, and that the private universities dwindling market share reflects that revelation of preference, by all means, let's develop that argument.

To suggest, however, that taxpayers are willing to be taxed, and legislators willing to appropriate funds, for the provision of fall spectacles, is a bit much. When the state coffers are empty, the state-aided universities have to practice economies.

At Southern Illinois University, president Glenn Poshard is not sure he can make his December payroll.

Glenn Poshard sent a message out to faculty and staff Nov. 10 announcing a freeze on most non-salary expenditures in an effort to try and make payroll in December.

The spending freeze is in response to the cash flow problem in Illinois; the state owes the university more than $115 million, Poshard said.

Gary Kolb, dean of the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, said no one could have anticipated the spending freeze.

“It’s a difficult situation,” Kolb said. “I don’t think anybody prepared for it, really.”

When his college received notification of the freeze, it immediately halted all nonessential travel and postponed purchases for various supplies such as computers and darkroom equipment, he said.

I'm not sure what Dean Kolb is thinking, we've been on frugality watch all year. Southern Illinois is losing enrollments, while we continue to attract students.
Northern Illinois University, Illinois State University, Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and Southeast Missouri State University all recorded increases of 1.3 percent or higher, while SIUC dropped by 1.6 percent.
It's possible that the recession is affecting student behavior. Our proximity to Chicago and Rockford-Belvidere might be inducing students who would otherwise consider the exotica of Carbondale to stay closer to home.

And the cash crunch is affecting the football program.
Right now, not even the top-ranked football team is allowed to purchase a new pair of cleats.“Here we are heading to the playoffs with the No. 1 ranking, and even the equipment manager has to make sure we can buy new cleats,” associate athletic director of finances Mark Scally said. “It’s gotten down to that level.”
That top-ranked is a reference to the Football Championship Series (formerly Division 1A) teams that have a formal playoff which ends in early December. The Salukis made an early exit. I have not heard anyone blaming old cleats.

At Northern Illinois University, we are serving more students (approximately 25,000 to Carbondale's 20,000) with a smaller state appropriation, and we're considering further economies. Here is president John Peters's explanation of the situation.

This year, receiving even a minimal level of support from the state has been a struggle.

Since the start of the fiscal year on July 1 through late November, the state did not disburse any of the funds allocated for our use.

They were $65 million behind in their funding to NIU before we received our first $8 million appropriation payment just last week.

Hopefully, that will start a trend because, as welcome as that money was, $8 million is not enough to cover even one single payroll cycle.

We are holding our own, but more difficult days may be ahead.

Regrettably, we have also been forced to increase the burden on our students through higher tuition and fees.

The efforts we’ve undertaken so far have allowed us to avoid the fate of some of our counterparts. Southern Illinois University, for instance, has stated publicly that they might not be able to meet their monthly payroll in December unless the state starts meeting its obligations immediately.

I am happy to say that we are not to that point yet, but we are gradually running out of options, since salaries account for such a large percentage of costs.

The editorial board at The Northern Star is unimpressed.
In reality, NIU’s greatest obstacle to fiscal relief is itself. From overpaid administrators to laughably useless sports-related expenses, the university would be best served to take a long, hard look at where all those increasingly precious pennies are disappearing to.
The editorial presents evidence it believes supports those claims.
Before delving into the harsh reality of NIU’s money woes at the meeting, Peters remarked how excited he was at the prospects of the NIU football team going to a bowl game. Ironic, considering bowl expenditures have been NIU’s equivalent to a faberge egg addiction over the last several years, squandering money on frivolous expenses.
The university has committed itself to future expenditures.
Consider the future: NIU has already paid $479,000 to reserve Soldier Field for games against Iowa in 2011 and Wisconsin in 2012, according to the information book from Thursday’s Board of Trustees meeting. Sure, those games should be fun for the few students who attend, but wouldn’t it be more beneficial to actually play these home games at home? Wouldn’t the massive followings generated by Iowa and Wisconsin tremendously bolster the local economy as patrons fill our hotels and dine at our restaurants?
The Huskies might be the Chicago area football team with the largest following, trailed by Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Northwestern (in that order) but turnout at those Soldier Field games doesn't persuade me there's any advantage in holding games there. That student journalists and DeKalb residents are questioning the university's continued participation in the positional arms race called college football suggests to me that, pace Ms Shaw, the use of tax funds to crowd out private universities by way of big time football isn't a sensible public policy.

There will be a January bowl game for the Huskies, who will play South Florida, a university more explicitly a football mill than Northern Illinois. Northern Star sports columnist Ben Gross correctly identifies the positional arms race problem (the Prisoners' Dilemma, to be formal) the university faces.

But in 2009, as in 2006, NIU made the right call. When asked to go to a bowl, a mid-major must say yes.

Any system that puts 56.7 percent of teams into the postseason — teams that have not won a game against an opponent with a winning record, games that draw little attention or crowds and forces programs to lose money — is a failed system.

NIU did what it had to do. It took advantage of a system that rewards mediocrity. The only question remaining is, what does going to a bowl game even mean anymore?

I propose a harder question: when will a bowl sponsor come to the conclusion that it will lose less money by not sponsoring the game?

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