Millions in athletic subsidies a pricey commitment

The funding of intercollegiate athletics is thought to be a simple formula: if the program makes as much as they spend, everyone wins. But 85 percent of all universities that compete at the NCAA Division I level require some sort of university support to fund their athletic programs, including Portland State.

With money for education tighter than ever in Oregon, some Oregon University System board members have become concerned with the way PSU pays for its athletic programs.

“The board had expressed the opinion that universities need to work themselves out of debt,” said board member Tony C. Van Vliet. “The feeling is that athletics shouldn’t have a lot of general fund dollars going into them. However the reality is that we should keep working at not having to use the general funds, but we are faced with the fact that it will become more difficult.”

At Portland State, $3.1 million of the athletic department’s $7.8 million budget comes from subsidies from the university’s general fund. The Student Fee Committee allocates an additional $2.3 million in student fees and the rest of the budget is funded through private donations, ticket sales and other revenues.

Each Big Sky Conference school, which Portland State joined in 1996 when it made the leap from Division II to Division I-AA, uses subsidies and student fees to support their programs. The University of Montana has the premier athletics program in the Big Sky. Montana’s athletic program has a total budget of $13 million, with $4 million coming from university subsidies.

Oregon’s two other Division I schools each receive money from student fees, though the University of Oregon does not receive any other subsidies. Oregon State University receives $4 million of its $36.8 million budget in subsidies, while UO gets $1.4 million in student fee money to its $39.8 million budget.

“It’s important to clarify that this is the norm in intercollegiate athletics,” said Tom Burman, Portland State’s outgoing athletic director, who will start a position at the University of Wyoming soon. “I don’t think its possible to have a complete program and meet Title IX and Big Sky regulations (without subsidies).”

Portland State is in its infancy as a Division I-AA program and Burman said that patience is key. Last year the program won three regular season championships in basketball, golf and women’s soccer and the volleyball team had their best year competing in the Big Sky.

“Playing at the Division I level is an expensive proposition,” he said. “We’ve only been doing it for nine years and that’s not enough time to fairly judge us.”

Burman and his program found a friend in PSU President Daniel Bernstine, who makes all final decisions on the university budget. Bernstine has pledged his continued support of Portland State’s athletic program, though he would like to see the subsidy reduced.

“I’m committed to keep funding athletics,” Bernstine said. “The fact there is a subsidy isn’t a problem. Every dollar we spend we’re taking it from somewhere else.”

Reducing the subsidy drastically has been deemed unrealistic by some of the top administrators at Portland State, including Burman and Vice President of Finance and Administration Lindsay Desrochers.

“If you want to play intercollegiate athletics you are going to need some assistance from the institution,” Desrochers said. “I don’t think the subsidy is going to change. For a program on such a skinny budget Tom Burman has really made it perform. The coaches work very hard and they don’t get paid a lot. You could say the same about a lot of our faculty — everybody here is underpaid.”

Both Desrochers and Burman say that the students have made their wishes clear to support athletics with the $2.3 million contribution from student fees and according to Desrochers “to pull the rug out from under them isn’t fair.”

“We appreciate what students do,” Burman said. “It pays off in raising the university’s profile. There’s value in being in Division I. I think it’s important for PSU to have pride. We overanalyze spending and forget what makes a campus.”

However, each year there is less and less money to spend and more demands. Van Vliet and Desrochers worry that Oregon is losing its commitment to higher education and lacks a definitive solution.

“We do not get enough state funding to do anything right,” Van Vliet said. “The state of Oregon is drifting behind. Faculty is concerned that any dollars that go someplace else should go to them.”

Desrochers calls Portland State’s budget “painfully tight” and says that the University is “operating on barebones.”

“The state is not invested in higher education as much as it was 10 years ago,” she said. “It’s not just in Oregon, it’s happening across the country.”

Van Vliet says that Oregon’s tax system is flawed and is holding the state back from supporting education, forcing the burden on students.

“We need to convince the people of the state of Oregon that their tax system is broken. You can’t supply all the things the state needs with a broken system,” Van Vliet said. “It’ll be kids talking to their parents and saying things need to change that will start the process.”