We’re in an interesting, important moment at EMU these days due to greater and greater concern about the institution’s budgetary condition and the sieve units on campus most prone to runaway spending. Ever since an HBO Real Sports segment, “Arms Race,” aired just over a week ago, the volume of these issues has climbed. In local and regional media, we’re catching various castings almost every day, many of them quoting regents, administrators, students, and Howard Bunsis, Professor of Accounting and faculty union leader, who has been among the most vocal proponents of more transparent and responsible spending. The most pointed details circulating are that over the past two years, athletics has operated on deficit (or General Fund dependency) of $52 million. Here’s a screen shot posted to Instagram from the report delivered to the Board of Regents that details how that deficit implicates all EMU students in patterned spending that obligates many of them to long-term payback via student loans. Each student who completes a four-year degree at EMU, the report says, contributes approximately $3600 to athletics, whether or not they attend a single event.
With this in mind, I wanted to note a couple of impressions:
- It’s difficult, a heavy chore to call for less of anything, to call for less spending on athletics or on any university venture that involves people we work alongside, because there is always a risk of it seeming a personal attack. I mention this as a former student-athlete, myself, and also as someone who worked in higher ed athletics administration for seven years. These discussions of change, particularly dollar-wise change, are fraught, intensely emotional on all sides of the issues, and therefore incredibly difficult to reduce to clear causes much less clear solutions.
- There are lingering narratives about underdogs (EMU is down but not out), about almosts (what if this is our breakthrough year?!), about unification (we’re all in this together), and about proportion (athletics is but a small sliver of the institution’s overall spending). These circulate as commonplaces, or readymade arguments that expedite, skipping over the nuance and subtlety, side-stepping the stickier work of correcting the problems. And as such, these are the sorts of snippets that tend to circulate in the news accounts because they are reportorially convenient.
- It is always to admit failure, particularly for those in the mix (e.g., an AD or particularly supportive regents) who themselves have sports backgrounds because the allure of sports is in part its continuous progress trope: always improving, always getting better, no obstacle too grand, etc. But this thinking is especially dangerous if it manifests as an expensive hubris or megalomania, an inflexible insistence on staying the course when there is abundant and costly evidence that it is not going well. Could EMU make a change and therefore save money? Sure it could. But there are people in this mix who hold power and who are beneficiaries of the runaway spending. As these conditions solidify, we return to the familiar patterns of a growing, better-and-better-paid administrative class, rising tuition, and institutional inertia–conditions for inflexibility that cannot help but compromise the quality of academic programs while reaching as deeply as possible into the pockets of those who are most cheated–students.
- For these issues to continue circulating, for them to become unstuck and for EMU to take up the hard work of institutional change will require more (and more public) faculty voices than Bunsis’. Discontent has been building for at least a few years, and it makes athletics difficult to really get behind, while sapping the morale in academic units on campus (where in some very specific cases, none of last year’s 7.8% tuition increase landed).
- I’ve attended at least one football game every year since I was hired seven years ago. Ron English was the coach back then, and I recall that faculty (perhaps only new faculty) were provided season tickets for home games free of charge. But this has not happened since. This season, for the first time, I purchased season basketball tickets for both men’s and women’s programs. I went to maybe 20 home games, total. I noticed at the football game–season opener–that tickets cost considerably more than in past years, enough to make me pause and wonder whether at that price point I would return. Exiting the stadium after that game, I walked with two colleagues, and we found that half of the stadium was not only vacant but that many of the exits were locked. The Convocation Center, where basketball and a few other indoor sports compete, tends to feel better occupied for home events, but the entire upper deck of the stadium (much like the entire away side of Rynearson) is blocked off with tarps that prohibit anyone from sitting there. These are expensive tarps, too, elaborate in their printing and designed to condense the facility’s attendees, mitigate the traffic areas for cleaning, and so on. There are numerous minor details to point out about the experience of attending these events that I won’t go into, but suffice it to say that these small details, such as the merchandise shop rarely being open during home basketball games, resonates with an overall impression of flagging institutional investment in the fan experience. That is, the investment is purely financial; it doesn’t show up as a more compelling experience at the events themselves.
- Finally (for now), I’ll reiterate that without pointing a finger at anyone or calling into question the wisdom of university leadership in such matters, wherever that responsibility might fall, football in particular has been implicated in some questionable and expensive choices lately, from extravagant uniforms whose digital readout-like letterforms made it impossible to distinguish sevens and ones to efforts to rebrand Rynearson Stadium as “The Factory”–a move that to this day is an unsettlingly absurd turn of events. With concession stands called “Assembly Line,” gray artificial turf, hard hats, a quitting time whistle upon major in-game events, and promotional gimmicks that put real sledge hammers in the hands of football players so they can pose as if about to swing away at loose-stacked cinder block, “The Factory” is downright embarrassing–a conceptual fumble whose oh-no-not-again weight is heavier than all of the real football team’s real turnovers (punts included) for the last decade. I’d better not go on. But I sure would hope that investing bags of money in a wobbly enterprise would take greater care than to put good, long-loaned tuition dollars behind such an unconscionable rebranding effort as that.
This is enough for today, enough for now. I’ll end with one last quotation from a news article circulating in Mlive today, “EMU AD Lyke: ‘no question’ football must improve, wants to stay in MAC“:
In addition, a report, issued by members of the Faculty Senate Budget and Resources Committee, the EMU-AAUP and the student body, points to an increase in the total full time equivalent athletic staff from 64 in 2006-07 to 85 in 2015-16. Staff salaries doubled from $3.2 million to $6.4 million as the department saw 10 more coaching positions and more than 11 “athletic personnel” added during the same time period. During that same time period, the report indicates EMU’s entire faculty increased by just 15.78 full-time equivalent personnel.
Here is where the frustration builds most pointedly: in the quiet, whispered truths like this that are uncomfortable to circulate because they amount to breathing lungfuls day in and day out of some fetid campus wind. In rates of personnel growth like this comes the disproportionately burdensome long-term investment that sets the university and its most vulnerable academic programs on a (possibly) disastrous course–unchecked spending justified by bizarre attachments to notions that ESPN broadcasts will compel, what? droves of new students? more ad revenue for activities not on ESPN? sudden national interest or relevance? I don’t know. But I will continue to pay attention as this plays out and try to make some sense of it in an occasional entry.