Disproportionate pay, disproportionate priorities

You don’t have to spend much time in Oregon to realize that college sports are important to a large amount of Oregonians. With the Beaver and Duck rivalry, the University of Oregon making it to the national championship, and the lack of an NFL team, people here take college football seriously.

I remember when I was first considering universities during my senior year of high school I was attracted to institutions with large amounts of school spirit, where athletics had some sort of cult-like status on the campus. I wanted to be on a campus that was proud of its achievements and allowed me to feel a sense of camaraderie with my fellow peers. We could be united by some common purpose. However, in my third year here at Portland State I have found a lot to be proud of, and it has nothing to do with our sports teams.

Call me old fashioned, but I am one of those people who believes the university is a place that should foster academic excellence, conduct research and develop new and exciting ideas. Many people might even agree with this sentiment, at least in a passive way. But when you see where money is spent at universities, it’s clear that the priorities are quite different.

According to the American Association of University Professors, the pay of head coaches nearly doubled between the academic years 2005–06 and 2011–12, while professors at doctoral institutions saw a pay raise of only 4 percent.

Even coaches of sports that don’t attract large audiences, such as golf and tennis, saw a pay raise between 53–79 percent at Division 1 AA schools.

The same study also compared how money is used at universities. At four-year institutions, spending only rose 0.9 percent per full-time enrolled student between the 2003–04 and 2010–11 academic years. This is partnered with only a 1.5 percent increase in academic spending.

These measly increases are trumped by the 24.8 percent increase in spending per student athletes.

Some people might point to state cutbacks for the lack of funding in higher education, but it does not account for the disparaging gap between where money is being spent and where it is being withheld in a university. Over an eight-year period, academic spending only grew by 5.1 percent while athletic spending grew 28.9 percent.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not look at these numbers with any sense of shock or awe. I know why this is becoming a more popular trend. Quite frankly, sports are a large moneymaker for universities. They attract students and they get the name of the university out there.

It’s a no-brainer that schools try to find the best coaches and pay top dollar for results.

This is revealing for a number of reasons. It essentially tells academic faculty that, while the work they do is somewhat important, they are not essential to the university’s survival or reputation.

Universities can get away with slashing the paychecks of our professors, but you don’t see plans halted for new stadiums, new athletics centers and full-ride scholarships for those who might help win a race or two during their academic career.

I can’t wait for the day I get to tell my future kid that it doesn’t matter if he reads books, watches science documentaries and gets an A on his paper. If he doesn’t run fast or throw a ball well, he’s out of luck.

I would even argue that these priorities are made worse by the fact we live in a culture that values athletics, violence and cute Super Bowl commercials over academics, productive dialogue and reading a good novel.

This isn’t me claiming there’s no value in playing sports. It would be foolish to insinuate that. Obviously sports can foster teamwork, inspire and challenge people, and have the power to foster a sense of fellowship among strangers. That, and they can help participants stay in shape and exercise in a fun way.

However, I feel their presence at universities has no real important role in the missions of research institutions.

While some people might claim that university sports give student athletes the discipline and motivation needed to succeed in college, I would argue that if they need the excuse of participating in some sort of structured physical activity to succeed at an academic institution, then maybe they shouldn’t attend a university. After all, I think the world has enough sports science majors.

I simply find it disconcerting that the university puts a larger emphasis on athletes than it does its other students, at least at the financial level.

I’m afraid there’s not much that can be done to prevent this trend and that we’re already trapped in a downward spiral. Head coaches are already some of the highest paid state employees in many states and are clearly not ready to give that up.

I would love to see the day when universities will begin to pay top dollar for their academic faculty instead of their coaches. I hope that, at the very least, universities and state governments can stop pretending they can’t give pay raises to professors or give more money to student aid when they are clearly willing to throw millions of dollars at athletics programs.

Maybe I’ll feel differently when you introduce me to a quarterback who calculates the ballistic trajectory of the football while also accounting for air resistance, and then relays that information to his teammates during that huddle.

Until then, I’ll sit here buried in my textbooks in between my two part-time jobs, knowing that the university doesn’t particularly consider me an investment.