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EWU faculty call for independent review of athletics spending

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 27, 2020

Eastern Washington University physics professor David Syphers delivers a presentation about the university’s athletics spending to the board of trustees during a meeting on the Cheney campus on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. (Chad Sokol / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington University physics professor David Syphers delivers a presentation about the university’s athletics spending to the board of trustees during a meeting on the Cheney campus on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. (Chad Sokol / The Spokesman-Review)

A physics professor representing concerned faculty members delivered a 10-minute presentation to Eastern Washington University’s board of trustees on Thursday, arguing money spent on athletics would be better spent on academics.

David Syphers, the treasurer of EWU’s faculty senate, made the pitch to the university’s governing board after co-authoring a report on the university’s athletic department, which typically spends between $12 million and $14 million a year. Most of that money comes from student fees and university coffers, including portions of tuition.

The report, which became public two weeks ago, suggests the university rein in spending by eliminating football or moving the school to a lower NCAA division, among other options.

“Intercollegiate athletics makes arguments in their favor,” Syphers told the trustees. “I would put to you that they do not generally make arguments that are well-supported by data, however.”

EWU administrators have argued sports help attract students to the university, but Syphers said that’s not the case. He alluded, specifically, to recent remarks by Athletic Director Lynn Hickey, who has described athletics as the “front porch” of the university.

“Our win-loss record is unrelated to our student enrollment,” Syphers said. “We also looked at the 2010 national (football championship) win, which also had no effect, at all, on enrollment. So if it’s a front porch, it’s not a front porch very many people are coming in to.”

Faculty members began airing frustrations over athletics last year as EWU’s administration began reorganizing colleges and academic departments to address a $3.6 million budget shortfall – a process that involved layoffs.

Syphers said fewer than 10% of EWU students participate in NCAA sports or attend games, and he urged the trustees to gather feedback from a wider swath of the student body.

“Athletics does not benefit most students. Our student-athletes are students as well, and they are important to us. We care about every single one of our students,” Syphers said.

“But it needs to be heard in this discussion that our student-athletes are 3% of our students. So if you’re talking to one student-athlete, or if you’re talking to one alum who was a former athlete about this issue, you need to talk to 30 students who are not athletes to get a representative sample.”

Syphers said the university should hire consultants – experts in sports management or sports economics – to review the university’s spending on athletics.

“Our report, as you’ll notice, makes no recommendations. That was not our place,” he said. “Our report was to give information to start this conversation going, and I hope we’ve succeeded there. But we need somebody to come in to make actual recommendations that we’ll take seriously and move forward.”

None of the trustees made any comments or posed any questions when Syphers concluded his presentation. Nor did President Mary Cullinan, who took part in the board’s meeting.

EWU spokesman Dave Meany had no comment on the faculty’s request for an external review of the athletics budget.

“I don’t have any information on that at this time,” Meany said in an email.

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