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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: As EWU reviews programs, calls to revisit athletics spending rise again

Eastern Washington wide receiver Malaki Roberson prays before a game against Weber State at Roos Field on Oct. 21 in Cheney.  (James Snook/For The Spokesman-Review)

More than three years after a faculty report urged Eastern Washington University to rethink its spending on athletics – and particularly football – at a time of widespread budget cuts in academics, a new universitywide program review is making a similar recommendation.

“Football needs to be transformed in order to bring it in line with EWU’s budget challenges and other regional universities in our area,” according to a task force report that followed a yearlong review of every program at the school.

“It is unsustainable for a university of our size with our budgetary challenges to allow a single unit to accumulate annual deficits as large” as those posted by football. In fiscal year 2022, the year cited in the report, the football program brought in $1.6 million in revenue and spent $4.9 million.

“EWU’s leadership needs to consider all options to decrease Football’s unsustainable deficit spending, including moving Football to a lower division,” the report said.

It is the latest push from within the university for EWU leadership to reconsider its levels of athletic spending, and particularly its spending on football, as the school has made cuts in academic programs – and as it prepares to make more.

Faculty leaders have pointed out that, at a time of program and staffing cuts in education, the university is spending roughly 20% of its student tuition and fee dollars on sports – about four times the proportion of athletics spending at Central and Western Washington universities. The university’s administration puts the spending at about 18% of student tuition, and notes that the entire athletics department spending is about 5% of the university’s overall budget.

The administration and board of trustees have resisted these changes to football in the past, however, and show no outward interest in revisiting the issue. Administrators have argued that the benefits of athletics are worth the cost, in terms of building community on campus and among alumni, fostering school spirit, connecting with potential donors, maintaining its commitment to gender diversity under Title IX, and providing opportunity for student-athletes.

“The bottom line for the Board is that we continue to believe that the benefits provided by our excellent athletic program justifies the ongoing investment,” Board Chairman Jay Manning and EWU President Shari McMahan wrote to faculty leaders who raised concerns about athletics funding in July.

“Suffice it to say, at this point, we are comfortable that our decision remains the right one.”

Tim Collins, EWU’s athletic director, said the athletic department has been focused on raising revenues – through philanthropy, ticket sales and sponsorships – to help bolster the budgets. But he thinks the department’s Division I status is the right one.

“We are a Division I, football-playing member of the Big Sky Conference, and that’s where we belong,” he said.

The final reports of the university’s Strategic Resource Allocation process were presented to the board Friday at its regular December meeting. They included the evaluations of two separate task forces – one focusing on academics and one on university services – and will be used in the months to come as EWU looks to develop a plan to address an $11 million “structural gap” in the budget.

The reports ranked every program in the university on a five-tier scale – invest, maintain, streamline, transform and “disinvest.” Thirty-six bachelor’s degree programs were included in the top tier, with a recommendation to invest more resources; these include computer science, criminal justice, early childhood and special education, and several environment science programs, along with many others.

Some 173 academic programs were included in the “disinvest” tier – ranging from programs that are already in the process of being shut down, some that can be merged with others and others with relatively low student numbers or graduation rates that could be eliminated.

But given the controversies surrounding athletics in recent years, the recommendation regarding football stood out starkly. The football program was ranked at the fourth level by a 16-member task force of staff, administrators and faculty – a status that reflects the need for “reorganization and/or resource reductions.”

The report also ranked athletics overall in the fourth tier. The athletic department recorded revenues of $12.9 million and operating expenses of $16 million in fiscal 2022.

EWU spokesman Dave Meany said Thursday that it’s important that people remember the reports are initial recommendations and far from final. Administrators will consider them, and gather further input, before making final plans in the months to come, and the board would have to approve changes.

“We’re going to look at everything and see how it affects the university going forward,” he said.

With regard to sports funding, he noted that when the board voted to stay in Division I athletics in June 2021, it also developed a five-year plan to improve the department’s sustainability.

“We are in the middle of that process right now,” he said.

Enrollment crisis

EWU’s current budget woes are driven by shrinking undergraduate enrollments over the past five years. Since 2018, the average annual headcount has fallen from 10,548 to an estimated 7,012 for the current year.

The decline is steepest among undergraduates, with enrollments in graduate programs and dual-enrollment programs with high schools rising.

The school faced a structural budget gap of $14.5 million in fiscal year 2023, which dropped to about $11 million in the current fiscal year. EWU’s overall two-year operating budget for 2023-25 is $640 million.

Meany said McMahan initiated the Strategic Resource Allocation process to “right-size” the university, focus on key areas of strength and create a sustainable budget.

The SRA academic task force ranked 173 academic programs – comprising $9.8 million in annual costs – in the fifth tier, labeled “Disinvest.” The task force emphasized that not every program on the list was being recommended to be cut.

Around 45 programs were in the process of being eliminated, and another 32 were duplicative and could be combined with other programs, the report said. Among the bachelor’s degree programs that are recommended for disinvestment are programs in chemistry/biochemistry, early childhood education, health services administration, several music degrees and many others.

It’s important to note that the SRA reports combined are hundreds of pages long, each program evaluation is detailed and nuanced, and it is far from clear which programs will be affected and how.

The program review process, and the arrival of the recommendations, have stirred emotions and opinions on campus. Representatives of both task forces spoke about long hours, incredible stress and the personal costs of engaging in the process in addition to their regular jobs.

“This process has taken countless hours from the whole campus community, which should have been invested in improving student experiences at EWU,” the academic task force wrote in its introduction. “Assessment is imperative to a healthy university; however, the SRA resulted in high stress and labor for our community and is something we should not casually seek to repeat.”

An ongoing debate

The recommendation to consider dropping from Division I sports to a less expensive, lower-profile division, such as Division II, echoes a recommendation from a faculty report published three years ago that called on the board to consider a variety of options to bring down athletics spending as it was making cuts to academics.

That report evaluated the costs and benefits of sports programs at EWU, and offered several alternative scenarios without endorsing any single one – from eliminating athletics altogether to dropping to a lower division to staying in Division 1 and eliminating football. Each option was estimated by the report’s authors to offer several million in potential savings.

The report’s authors said they produced it not to criticize athletics, but to call for a prioritization of the university’s core academic mission at a time of budget crisis.

“We pass no judgment on the quality of work performed in the Athletic Department,” they wrote. “Cuts to Athletics are suggested because that money is more vitally needed elsewhere, not because Athletics doesn’t need it or because they add nothing of value to Eastern.”

The administration and board pushed back immediately, as did coaches, athletes, and other supporters of EWU sports. The administration issued a statement dismissing the report the day it was released, and the board listened to a presentation on the report without asking a single question.

The board then commissioned a follow-up report, conducted by a firm run by former university athletic directors, that leaned heavily toward staying the course. The board voted in June 2021 to do so and to try to raise more money to close the budget shortfall – then-President David May said at the time that when it came to sports, the university didn’t have a spending problem, it had a revenue problem.

Since then, however, EWU’s fundraising has not covered the gap, and as the school has backfilled that revenue problem from other university funds, the issue has not gone away.

Faculty union leaders sent a letter in July to the board and administration raising concerns about athletics spending, and particularly the decision in June 2022 to permanently transfer $2.4 million from academic affairs to athletics.

They noted that the most recent EWU budget devoted almost 20% of student tuition and fees to athletics, compared to 4% to 5% at comparable state institutions like Central and Western Washington universities.

They called on the board to engage the faculty to “confront our budget reality, engage in civil, open and productive dialogues about our athletic budgets, and make budget decisions for the sustainability and vitality of the university.”

The response from McMahan and Manning reiterated their commitment to Division I athletics, and said that it’s more valid to compare EWU to its peers in the Big Sky Conference than other schools in Washington.

“When compared to those institutions,” they wrote, “Eastern’s support for athletics remains remarkably frugal.”

‘No sacred cows’

Collins, the athletic director, said that athletics contributes to the university’s mission in many ways. He noted that the retention rate of student-athletes is higher than that of the general student population, and that sports bolsters the school’s diversity .

It’s also an important point of connection for the university with the community at large. Attendance at home football and basketball games was more than 58,000 combined in the last year.

He said EWU sports helps raise the school’s profile in the region and across the country, generating 2.8 million social media impressions from 250,000 individual accounts in the past year.

“And 25,000 of those accounts are in the 13- to 17-year-old age range, which makes them prospective students at Eastern Washington University,” he said.

He said that athletics does provide the “front porch” to the university – a way to bring attention to the school at large – but that it’s also a part of the core mission of educating students and serving the community.

“I believe in our ability to champion the university’s mission and be a mouthpiece, but we are also living the university mission,” he said.

EWU’s athletics budget is smaller than most of its competitors in the Big Sky, and much smaller than some of them. But EWU’s revenues are lower than most other conference schools, and it has one of the largest gaps between revenues and expenses, according to USA Today’s annual review of all athletic department spending.

A comparison to the Big Sky average athletic budgets from 2020, which was presented to the board earlier this year, shows that Eastern generates less revenue within the athletics department (27% of its budget compared to the conference average of 33%), and relies more heavily on university financial support (57% of the budget versus the average of 48%) than its peers.

The task force report on football noted that the consultant who developed the process “charged the task forces to consider all options to cut our deficit and said this process can only succeed if there are no sacred cows.”

One of the authors of the faculty report from 2020, physics professor David Syphers, said he was glad to see a renewed call for evaluating athletics spending.

“I am heartened to see a group of staff and faculty from across the university recommend profoundly rethinking our spending on intercollegiate athletics, including the possibility of divisional reclassification,” he said in a written statement.

“Now is a time we must focus on our core academic mission, which includes many units from across campus, but does not include Division I athletics. We can’t impoverish our students and cut academic-supporting units to fund an athletics program that is far more expensive than those of our peer institutions. A comprehensive athletics program is possible at a far more reasonable price in Division II. I support all our students, including our student–athletes, but the student part comes first.”

Editor’s note: The author of this article teaches part-time in EWU’s creative writing department.