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WSU students balk at paying higher fees to balance athletic department budget

Washington State University President Kirk Schulz received a petition Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017 signed by 50 WSU employees outlining an alternative plan for the university to save $30 million in the next three years. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State University President Kirk Schulz received a petition Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017 signed by 50 WSU employees outlining an alternative plan for the university to save $30 million in the next three years. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Washington State University’s new president has introduced a plan to balance the budget of the school’s insolvent athletics department.

But a piece of that plan has students in an uproar.

Administrators have asked students to consider paying an additional $50 per semester to help bring the athletics department into the black. The department has been operating at a $13 million deficit since 2014, partly because of higher coaching salaries, an expensive new football facility and lower-than-projected TV revenue.

“With the athletics department messing up and not being able to budget properly, it’s not fair for students to have to pay for that,” said Jordyn Beckford, a senator in the student government. “No student wants to pay more. With tuition, books, mandatory fees, it’s already really expensive.”

In an interview Monday, WSU President Kirk Schulz said the $50 fee is “a really modest piece” of the broader plan, which he and athletic director Bill Moos presented to the board of regents last week. The plan, which aims to make the athletics department solvent by 2020, involves increased support from the university, doubled spending from the Cougar Athletic Fund and revenue from proposed beer sales in Martin Stadium.

Projections say the student fee would generate between $1.7 million and $1.9 million annually. It would apply each fall and spring semester to undergraduates on the Pullman campus, who currently pay $1,255 in mandatory fees each year for services such as transit and the campus recreation center. In-state tuition is $9,884 a year, a figure that doesn’t include room and board.

The prevailing sentiment among students, based on numerous social media comments, is that they’re unfairly being asked to “bail out” the athletics department for financial decisions in which they had no say.

An editorial from the student newspaper, the Daily Evergreen, says the proposal “rewards financial irresponsibility.” And one student wrote a letter to that paper, likening the athletics department to a greedy restaurant patron: “When was the last time you went to an expensive steakhouse, ordered more food than you needed and gave the bill to a stranger on the street?”

Schulz, a former chairman of the NCAA board of governors, said his office has received complaints from students and parents who help foot their bills. But it’s not up to him whether the proposal moves forward.

Instead, the Associated Students of WSU must decide whether students should vote on the fee in a November referendum. Beckford said it’s unlikely her fellow student senators will give it a chance.

“The students have to decide whether it will even go to a vote,” Schulz said. “I think there’s been a lot of reaction like this is a done deal, when it’s far from that.”

Meanwhile, some professors decry the university’s focus on sports, said A. G. Rud, a philosophy professor who is chairman of the faculty senate.

“A lot of teachers in the humanities feel marginalized,” partly because of an increasing focus on science and engineering fields, and partly because of outsize spending on athletics, Rud said.

He noted that more than half of WSU faculty members are adjunct, meaning they have short-term contracts. Last year, when football coach Mike Leach raked in $2.95 million, the highest-paid adjunct professor at WSU made less than $104,000.

Rud said that kind of “disproportion” is common at universities. He considers himself a Cougar fan but said game days should never interfere with coursework. That’s what happened Oct. 31, 2013, when afternoon classes were canceled to facilitate crowds for a home game against Arizona State.

Rud said many instructors viewed that game as “just another example of how football trumps classes.”

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