Tuesday, May 24, 2011

If you build it, they will come?

Indoor groundbreaking for the track & field complex.
The new $3.96 million track & field complex is now under construction, as part of the grand Saluki Way program. The track & field construction is related to the plan to build a new Student Services building where the parking deck is now; the first phase of construction of the new Student Services building (basically reallocation of parking to compensate for spaces lost when the parking deck goes down) is now under way.

Math whizzes in the audience will note that the $4.0 million to be spent on the track & field complex is rather more than the $2.6 in planned savings for furloughs this past year. Throw in the student center expenses, and you'd probably have enough to avoid furloughs next year as well.

But wait!  Isn't money spent on athletics, or campus construction, or especially athletics construction printed in different denominations than money spent on, say, civil service salaries?  Doesn't it at least come in a different color? Well, no.

Athletics director Mario Mocca is quoted in the Southern saying that savings from earlier Saluki Way projects allowed the track & field construction to move forward. That's an interesting claim. Does it mean that this $4.0 million could have been used to offset losses in the athletics department budget--i.e., to offset the subsidy the academic side of campus pays to support athletics? But as Mocca is also quoted saying, the campus needs the land currently being used by the track team (the old McAndrew) for the student services building; if Saluki Way were going to move forward, something needed to be done for the track team. I.e., we'd be building this complex one way or another.

SIUC track team is, as I understand it, consistently very strong.  They deserve quality facilities. But as we've seen with our basketball and football programs, the "if you build it, they will come" line isn't always terribly effective--where the "they" are both high-quality student athletes and paying fans. You will know that last year both teams were less successful than they have been in the recent past; although the football team again had a respectable season, the basketball program may be in free fall. Football attendance was up last year by 20% in the new stadium, but basketball attendance dropped 12%.

And of course undergraduates are flocking to SIUC thanks to the new athletic facilities. Funny, but in the Chancellor's recent statements I haven't even heard her making that argument. We've had excellent basketball seasons in the pre-renovation arena and a lousy basketball program in the revamped arena; excellent football seasons in old McAndrew and an average season in the new [Your Corporate Logo Here] Stadium. Anyone detect any boost in enrollment? Any help for the research and teaching missions of this university from all these millions spent on Saluki Way?

Is it easier to raise money from the state and from some private donors for athletic bricks and mortar than for education? Yes. And once the money is dedicated to athletics or bricks and mortar, it has to go there. But could none of that money have been raised for other purposes? I've made fund-raising phone calls for university academics (for another institution, as it happens, in a very brief & unsuccessful stint as a paid fundraiser for Syracuse University), and one of the answers we were trained to deal with was: "I already gave to the athletics department". I don't recall our answer to this line--probably something rather pathetic along the lines of "well, students at the university also need an education, you know".

And student fees put toward athletics--the single largest contributory factor going toward Saluki Way, on my understanding--could obviously have gone elsewhere, including staying with our increasingly financially strapped students.

The budgetary specifics are always complex, and it is true enough that money needs to be spent on bricks and mortar sometimes--including for our athletes. But it is hard to see how this can be one of those times. Even if you believe the administrative story--that they found a huge pot of gold buried on campus, with magic strings attached to the pot that allowed the gold to be removed only if the pot were dumped into a big old hole in the ground named Saluki Way--the symbolism is nasty. You are telling campus employees that you can't guarantee them their wages, that they must agree to terms allowing you to furlough them and lay them off, given how dire the fiscal crisis is. And then you go get your expensive shovel and start digging.

Leadership requires taking people with you, ideally including people in addition to those in the athletics department. Imagine how much good will the Chancellor could have gained by delaying some of this construction.

If you build it, they will come? Not so far. And as an added bonus, you get to show something rather like contempt for the people who are already here.


  1. Yes, a despicable waste of money. It shows that the priority on this campus is sport and not education. An article in the May 15th edition of THE NEW YORK TIMES summed this up very well by mentioning that undergraduate education is now suffering adversely due to university administration having other priorities. Here, they simply do not care about education and the declining morale of people on this campus.

  2. I understand that capital, "building" money cannot go towards the base, "regular" budget. But why can't the capital funds go towards other, outstanding projects, such as fixing up old buildings, finishing the 6th and 7th floors of the library, or moving the books from McLafferty back to the library?

  3. Beth,

    As Dave points out, according to the administration, the Saluki Way money is in a pot of gold with "...strings attached to the pot that allowed the gold to be removed only if the pot were dumped into a big old hole in the ground named Saluki Way."

    The money came from increased athletic fees, a sales tax increase and donations, so there really were strings that forced the money to be spent on Saluki Way. On the other hand, student fees, money from local government, and donations all could have been raised for other needs on campus, but the university administration chose to put Saluki Way ahead of them.

    I personally would prefer a finished library and a half-finished track rather than what we have. When I imagine a finished library and a track with a polyurethane surface half way around and crushed limestone for the other half, it makes me smile.

  4. Hi Dave, Great post. So much for the fiscal emergency that warranted the furloughs!


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