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Eastern Washington University faculty members propose cutting sports to pay for academics

The iconic red turf of Eastern Washington University’s Roos Field is seen in 2017. A new report by EWU faculty members criticizes the athletic department as a drain on university resources and suggests participation in NCAA sports  isn’t worth the cost. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A new report by faculty members at Eastern Washington University criticizes the athletic department as a drain on university resources and suggests NCAA sports aren’t worth the cost.

But EWU trustees and administrators have no plans to eliminate the athletic department or change its standing in the NCAA to free up money for academic programs, as the faculty report suggests. Some university leaders stepped up to defend the department over the weekend.

In an interview, EWU Athletic Director Lynn Hickey acknowledged her department spends more money than it raises and said she respects the concerns of faculty members. But, she said, “I don’t agree with how they’ve assessed our value.”

“Eastern’s not doing anything outrageous. We’re not doing anything extravagant,” Hickey said. “At the same time, we know that we need to be responsible, fiscally. But we’ve been proactive on that. We’re getting better.”

The report, prepared by four professors for EWU’s faculty senate, says spending on athletics has had “no positive impact on our student enrollment, retention or recruitment” and proposes eliminating the athletic department entirely, among other options.

By cutting NCAA sports, EWU “could become a national leader in resisting the ever-increasing costs of intercollegiate athletics, and become widely known for our commitment to academic excellence and controlling student cost burden,” the report says. “We would also have money available for a substantial investment in academics, community engagement, research support and student support.”

In a statement, EWU spokesman Dave Meany said the report will be presented to the board of trustees during their next meeting at the end of the month.

“This report was not commissioned by the university and we are in the process of reviewing the study, including an examination of its methodology and data sources, and the conclusions drawn,” the statement said.

Some faculty members have previously criticized EWU’s administration for cutting the budgets of academic programs and reorganizing departments while giving more money to athletics. The university is merging its seven colleges into four to address a $3.6 million budget shortfall.

Meanwhile, the athletic department typically spends between $12 million and $14 million a year, with most of that money coming from student fees or university coffers.

The department spent significantly more last year – about $18.3 million – because of the football team’s run to the national championship game in Frisco, Texas. And, according to the report, ticket sales accounted for just 3.7% of the department’s budget last year, while alumni donations made up only 4.5%.

“In effect, academic funds are being transferred to athletics,” said David Bunting, an economics professor and co-author of the report. “We’re supposed to be an educational institution, but we’re really becoming an entertainment institution.”

The other authors of the report are physics professor David Syphers, history professor Robert Dean and English professor Anthony Flinn. They wrote that sports have some intrinsic value for the university, but not nearly enough to warrant so much financial investment.

“Athletics has benefits for the players, allowing them to pursue a passion at a high level of competition,” the report says. “However, it is unclear why substantial use of university funds is appropriate for this. Other students compete at national levels in pursuits as diverse as drum corps, club ice hockey and marksmanship, and do not receive massive university funding for these activities.”

Hickey said athletics benefit EWU in many ways that can’t be quantified. Thousands of people watch Eagles games online, providing “constant visibility” for the university, she said.

The football team, the iconic red turf at Roos Field, Swoop the mascot – all of it, Hickey said, gives alumni and current and prospective students a way to engage with EWU.

“When I say Gonzaga, what do you think of?” she asked, alluding to the success of the Zags basketball team.

While the athletic department needs to boost game attendance and bring in more donations, Hickey noted that few Division I athletic departments turn a profit. She said EWU is one of few schools without a student fee that’s automatically allocated for sports.

Short of eliminating the athletic department, the faculty report proposes five other “alternative models” that might bring down the cost of athletics. Those include transitioning to the NCAA’s Division II or Division III, which could enable the university to spend less on operating costs and student-athlete scholarships.

Or the university could leave the NCAA and join the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, which bills itself as a low-cost alternative.

EWU currently belongs to the NCAA’s Big Sky Conference. But as part of the NAIA’s Cascade or Frontier conferences, the university would be hundreds of miles closer to competing schools, eliminating the cost of flights and multiday travel for many games, according to the report.

Hickey said the football team’s performance justifies its presence in the NCAA. And she said EWU’s student-athletes maintain high grade-point averages.

“When you look at the success that we’ve had both athletically and academically, I think there’s great deal of merit to us being Division I and being in the Big Sky,” she said.

Other proposals include remaining in Division I but imposing large budget cuts or eliminating the football program, which the faculty report identifies as the biggest source of “unsustainable” cost increases for the department.

The report notes the high risk of football players developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a brain disorder that can cause memory loss, confusion, aggression and loss of impulse control, among other behavioral problems.

Eliminating football “would anger a few vocal fans, but would show Eastern as standing up for the principles we publicly espouse: that we are here to help our students learn and successfully launch careers,” the report says. “We are not here to have them trade brain damage for a reduced-cost education.”

EWU students and alumni, including current and former members of the football team, blasted the faculty report on social media over the weekend.

“AN ABSOLUTE EMBARRASSMENT TO OUR UNIVERSITY,” Sam McPherson, an EWU senior and former running back, wrote on Twitter. “This brain damaged athlete is about to graduate with honors along with many others. If a ‘brain damaged’ athlete can do that what does that say about your program?”

Leslie Cornick, the associate dean of EWU’s College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, issued a statement responding to the backlash on Friday, saying student-athletes are an important part of “the fabric of our university.”

“Many of our great Eagle athletes are STEM majors and alumni of our outstanding programs. They are us,” Cornick said.

“Athletics are an important part of the American university experience, and we are all made stronger by the community they help create,” she said. “We are nationally recognized for the quality of our student-athletes and their academic excellence. The entire athletics program is an outstanding partner to EWU STEM, and we look forward to our continued collaboration for excellence.”