Joyce Milambiling is an associate professor in languages and literatures at UNI.
I used to work with a woman named Mildred who donated large sums of money to charity. One day I put two stamps on a letter that didn’t need that much postage, but I was in too much of a hurry to go to the post office. Mildred told me that she wouldn’t continue to support a charity if they overspent like that. "That means they are not using my money well," she said.
The University of Northern Iowa is an institution that receives money from a broad range of taxpayers — including donors, students and their families (who also pay tuition), and local business owners. UNI is not a charity but rather is an educational institution where the primary mission is academics, although that is not all that we do and it is not all that we are known for.
The Courier recently ran a series of articles on UNI athletics that highlighted, among other topics, the financial aspects of Panther Athletics. Athletic Director Troy Dannen was quoted as saying, "I look at football as a revenue sport."
You have to look at the bottom line. Businesses and educational institutions certainly bring in money, but at the end of the day you have to compare what has come in with what has been spent. UNI athletics is not self-supporting and runs at a deficit. This is a fact. The General Education Fund contributed $4.3 million to the athletic department this past fiscal year, a year that has been difficult on many levels. A large number of academic programs were cut, Malcolm Price Laboratory School was shut down, and teachers, including tenured faculty, suddenly had no jobs or were being urged to take a "voluntary separation" package.
In this economic climate, no university program is completely safe from cuts and even elimination. Ask students in French who are halfway through their Master’s degree or prospective students who wanted to obtain a Geology B.S. or B.A degree at UNI. Those academic programs were suddenly and unceremoniously done away with, an action that took almost everyone but the administration by surprise.
In the meantime, in the "Dollars and Sense" series on Panther athletics, there was mention of possibly moving UNI football from the Football Championship Subdivision up to the Football Bowl Subdivision. The FBS certainly has higher visibility in the world of college football, but it costs more money to belong — a lot more money. Justin Pope, an Associated Press education writer, reported that "… overall, the difference between FCS and FBS is a matter of degree: much higher revenues, but also more expenses and, in many cases, much higher losses requiring the university to cover the difference."
A feasibility study commissioned by UNI in 2010 by Alden & Associates explored the prospect of UNI moving from its current spot in the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. Only part of that study was released to the faculty and none of it, it seems, was seen by the general public. The report from this study was not encouraging:
It will be very difficult (for UNI) to generate sufficient local revenue to pursue transition to the FBS level … The examination of this option will in all likelihood increase institutional spending on athletics both directly through scholarship and operational costs, as well as capital investments required to upgrade and maintain athletic facilities.
Recently, when the subject of UNI athletic programs has been broached, some in the community have jumped to the conclusion that athletics are not valued at UNI and that any change would amount to elimination of popular sports or athletics altogether. It can be much less dire than that. Why not consider options like UNI football staying in the FCS or moving to Division II? UNI Professor Chris Martin has pointed out that Truman State University is an institution that "has more varsity sports than UNI … but it plays them at the Division II level." Moreover, Truman State currently outranks UNI in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, Martin maintains, "because academics are that university’s first priority."
Athletics are an important part of university life, and there is no question that sports benefit the athletes, the community, and the university and its students in many ways. However, balance is important, and we all, including UNI’s intercollegiate athletic program, should be living within our means.
If any part of the university does not use other people’s money well, Mildred would not be happy and neither should we.
Frank Thompson contributed to this column.