Right now, Eastern Washington University has a million bucks left in a fund intended to help students pay tuition.
At a school dedicated to serving first-generation and low-income students, this money could do a lot of good indeed. Instead, EWU is looking at raiding that fund to help cover a $3.4 million athletics debt.
It’s a bad omen for a school that just months ago decided to cut millions from its academic budget while maintaining its sports budget without significant cuts, all in the high hopes of raising more money for sports from donors.
“Eastern Washington University doesn’t have a spending problem” in athletics, interim President David May told the Board of Trustees in October. “We have a resource problem, which really means we have a revenue problem. How we generate revenue for the program is the crucial question moving forward.”
Before the new money from donors starts rolling in, though, the school will be generating revenue from inside the institution. As a parable for misplaced priorities in higher ed, you couldn’t do better.
The status of EWU’s deficit-spending athletics program has been on the front burner since early last year, as the school has faced calls for re-examine its athletics spending in the context of its program to cut $16 million from its academic affairs budget. Those calls were not heeded, and sports spending was preserved.
Just a couple of months later, the athletics department is already in a deeper-than-expected hole, and so the university must pony up. One potential source of that is unallocated money in an institutional scholarship fund, which provides need-based aid and other assistance for students.
The $1 million is remaining because of lower enrollments, but it could be carried over. The university is also considering drawing on its foundation sources, trying to speed up fund-raising and possible cost cuts.
But the very idea of using the scholarship fund strikes an outrageous note. EWU spokesman Dave Meany emphasized Tuesday that it is just one proposal, and hasn’t been adopted – and might not be adopted.
He also said that the school’s commitment to helping students is unwavering, and he pointed out that the school raised far more money for scholarships and related programs helping students than it did for athletics in fiscal 2021 – bringing in $3.6 million for scholarships versus $822,000 for athletics.
“Eastern, no matter what, is always going to support all of our students,” he said.
And athletics did make cuts of about 25% prior to the most recent decision to backstop the current debt, he said.
Still, the cycle of institutional backing for deficit-spending is simply dog-bites-man news for college athletics. Down the road in Pullman, Washington State has fine-tuned this absurd dance into a form of ballet. The sports deficit grows annually. A plan is cooked up to get out of the black in five years, or 10 years, or 15 years. In the meantime, sports draws upon the resources of the rest of the school.
The pandemic has complicated this, for sure, but it was a well-worn pattern beforehand.
I should note that I teach occasionally at EWU – about one class every two years – though my personal situation hasn’t been affected. I also enjoy a good basketball or football game, though I see no reason for an institution to go broke keeping up with the Joneses. Obviously, EWU athletics has a spending problem, and it would be entirely possible to curtail it. How do we know? Because that’s what EWU did with its academic budget.
Just consider the parallel budget crises in the past couple of years – one in sports, one in academics – and how the school responded.
About a year ago, the university released a report it commissioned on structural budget problems based on declining enrollments. The university had a goal of cutting $16 million from its teaching programs, and the report suggested eliminating majors and lines of study in order to bring the budget into the black, as well as consolidating classes and increasing the workload for some professors.
After a long, involved process, the board voted to eliminate several degrees, including tracks in music, journalism, visual arts – and, in a supreme irony of timing, supply-chain management.
No similar report on how to prioritize cuts in athletics was commissioned. A well-researched faculty report last February called for the school to at least consider dropping from Division I to a lower level, eliminating football or even eliminating all sports, given the budget emergency.
It outlines several sobering, and controversial, findings about athletics that were a poke in the eye to the favored narratives about college athletics, including demonstrating that various sports successes had not resulted in enrollment spikes, detailing surveys that a majority of students do not attend games or consider athletics crucial to their experience, and that student-athletes account for just 3% of the student body.
The administration and board ignored this report, then went out and paid for another one from the Pictor Group – an agency made up of former college coaches and athletic directors. That report put a heavy thumb on the scales in favor of preserving the current program.
The report was loaded with examples of other teams spending more on sports and suggested Eastern would need to spend $4 million more per year to maintain this invaluable status quo.
At one point, the report cited a list of “intangibles that are not often found at institutions that do not have athletics and are rarely found at non-Division I schools.”
This list included, no kidding: experiences, memories, pride, community heroes, fellowship, partnership, perception, reputation, water cooler talks “and many more.”
How would EWU survive without memories and pride and water cooler talks? The decision to support continual deficit spending in sports was every bit as inevitable as the decision not to do so in academics.
And until the money starts falling from the sky, the university will inevitably be siphoning off money from an already cash-strapped institution – like tuition aid for poor students, maybe.