Zurik: University budgets gutted, but athletics running up the score

Zurik: 'Pay to Play' 2016 recap

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The typical college student never makes it on the Jumbotron.

"I'm from Houma," a student at Louisiana Tech University tells us, on campus in Ruston. "I'm a junior, physics major."

"I'm a psychology major," a Southeastern student tells us, on the other end of the state.

"Civil engineering," says another.

These students make their big plays in the classroom.

"This is my psychology class," says a student at Northwestern State, showing us her favorite textbook of the semester. "It's Psychology 2450."

They may enjoy sports but they rarely suit up for the game, seldom take a position at center court or the 50-yard line.

"I like learning about how people interact with their environments," a senior in Hammond tells us.

"I like this book because it's teaching me a lot about war and history, why we go to war," another student says.

Decisions made across college campuses will impact these academic stars' futures, and have many of them startled.

"I'm very surprised to hear that," one says when we discuss our findings. "I have no words for that."

"It makes me so mad," a student says.

During eight years of budget tightening, 10 public universities in Louisiana have been forced to cut their educational spending by an average of 4.4 percent, while their athletic budgets have grown by 57 percent - six times the inflation rate.

"I don't understand why the athletic budget has gone up so much when they keep complaining that we have all these budget cuts," a student says.

At McNeese State in Lake Charles, the school has increased its athletics budget by 58 percent; the university's operating budget has fallen 6 percent. The number of full-time professors there has dropped 23 percent, while athletics staff has increased 12 percent.

We find a similar story at Northwestern State, in Natchitoches. Total professor salaries have been plummeted by nearly 19 percent since 2008.  During this same time period, total salaries paid to athletics staff have shot up by 38 percent.

The numbers are even more staggering when you take a look at NSU's overall budget.  Since 2008, the school's operational budget - its budget for professors, library books, and the other costs of running a four-year public university - has fallen about 9 percent.  During the same time period, the school's athletic budget shot up nearly 40 percent.

The Board of Regents, higher education's governing board in Louisiana, has rules on how much universities can supplement athletics. That supplement cannot exceed the cost of athletic scholarships, plus 3 percent of the university's operating budget.

A handful of schools contribute the full amount, including Northwestern State. In 2008, before the budget cuts began in earnest, the school gave athletics $3,376,523; this year it's up to $3,774,498.

More funding won't guarantee winning records, of course - since 2009, the Demons football team has won 30 games and lost 49.

"I don't want to question what anybody prior to me did," says NSU president Jim Henderson. "What I'm telling you is, today, that's not our approach."

Dr. Henderson arrived at Northwestern State one year ago.  He says he values athletics and defends the university's commitment to both athletics and academics. But Henderson told his faculty and staff in a recent email that the university "must examine how we fund" athletics.

"It is our goal to reduce any institutional outlays of resources to athletics," he tells us, "so that athletics becomes a very visible, prominent part of helping us advance our mission, and not a drain on resources."

Next year, Henderson hopes to reduce how much the university sends to athletics by 10 percent.

"We've got to generate the resources to support your operation, because we can't continue to fund it at the risk of the academic mission," he says.

In the past eight years, McNeese State has increased the operating funds it directs to athletics from $3.2 million to almost $3.6 million; Louisiana Tech from $4.1 million to $4.6 million - again, amid professor cutbacks, pruned salaries and other belt-tightening measures in academics.

Louisiana Tech declined our request for an interview, but commented in writing:

Although athletics funding from the university's state resources has increased slightly since 2008, it has been necessary to meet the significant cost increases of scholarships due to the escalation in tuition costs.  During this time, Louisiana Tech has remained in full compliance with Board of Regents policies and limits regarding university funding of athletics.

Should every school in the state, during these tough budget times, be asking their athletics departments to do more with less?

"I think so," says Joseph Rallo, the state's commissioner of higher education. "And I can tell you, when I was president and went through budget issues, that was part of our conversion. And we did basically begin to redirect some of those dollars, and ask the coaches and ask the coaching staff to make do with less.  So I believe firmly that those conversations are going ongoing in our campuses. It may not be as easy, or it may not be as instantaneous as people might like. And it's valid point, it's a valid question."

In Thibodaux, Nicholls State leaders have taken a different approach.

"I think it's worth the enterprise," Nicholls State president Bruce Murphy says of college athletics. "I think it's worth having athletics."

Nonetheless, Nicholls State has cut university funding directed to athletics by about $1.1 million in the past eight years.

"We've cut just about everything," Dr. Murphy says.  "It is painted with the brush of 'everybody's taking their share.'"

Grambling has decreased its athletics supplement by about 25 percent, to $2.2 million.  Southeastern's funding has been flat.

There's more.

Remember, most schools contribute operating funds, also known as the school's "education and general funds."  But the University of Louisiana at Lafayette takes a different approach.  Instead of dipping into the E&G accounts, the school uses another pot of money: auxiliary funds. That money is generated from dormitories, student unions and campus dining. The state has no limit on the amount of auxiliary funding that can supplement athletics.

Last year, UL-Lafayette directed $7.4 million of this money to athletics. In the past eight years, UL-Lafayette has increased university funding to athletics more than any other college in the state, by $3.9 million.  Its athletic budget has also shot up 129 percent; salaries increased 144 percent in total.

UL-Lafayette's athletics director declined our request for an on-camera interview. The school did give us a written statement, pointing out the economic impact of athletics:

Games have an economic impact on the community. According to a study by [the Lafayette Economic Development Authority], the 2013-14 football program had a local economic impact of over $27.3 million. Of that, $7.6 million was attributed to wages paid to area residents, supporting 241 jobs and contributing $17.2 million to the Acadiana Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

University officials also say the school "remains one of the lowest in percentage of budget spent on sports compared to others."

"I still think athletics is a good investment," Peter Fos insists.

Fos retired as president of the University of New Orleans this year.  Under Fos, UNO cut its funding sent to athletics from $1 million in 2012 to zero.

When we ask him why, he says, "Because I didn't want to damage the other programs on campus, in academics."

At UNO and the other schools, some athletes are on partial scholarships and a handful may pay their full way.  So eliminating athletics outright would mean a loss of tuition money, too.

Fos went to his athletics department with a message. "I told the athletics director here to do more with less," he recalls. "They've done more with less."

What's unclear is whether other university presidents around the state are following suit.

Southern University in Baton Rouge has budgeted to increase its supplement to athletics by $2,149,841 more than it did in 2008. Numbers given to us in an email by Southern conflict with what they submitted to the state Board of Regents. Southern also told us their numbers for this year may change:

Based on looming budget uncertainties in the state budget it is too early to project the actual amount of the general operating subsidy at this time.

Southern University of New Orleans reports an athletics budget of $872,410 this year, a 27 percent increase from 2008 - as its operating budget fell by 24 percent. The school told us in part, "While athletics, historically, has not been a revenue generator at SUNO, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, strategically, it was important for us to maintain the program in an effort to enhance overall student life, which was adversely affected.

McNeese State is budgeting $1,036,090 more. Schools pay professors through student tuition, fees and state money.  But McNeese State has other income, too: State law requires riverboat casinos in Lake Charles to give a portion of their yearly revenue to the university.

At a 2007 legislative meeting to tweak that law, Senator Danny Martiny of Metairie referenced the purpose of it three times: "for education." While lawmakers likely wanted this money to fund education initiatives, McNeese spent most of the money - $833,784, last year alone - on athletics.

McNeese also declined our request for an on-camera interview. In a statement, McNeese State calls our stories "misleading" - especially how we pointed out the school's athletics budget has increased while the university's operating budget has decreased.

School president Phillip Williams writes that the increase is due to rising tuition costs, which have led to higher costs in athletic scholarships. That's true: Athletics must reimburse the university for the cost of athletics scholarships. Williams says:

When the misleading bookkeeping entry [of scholarships] is removed... the annual budget increase for athletics entirely disappears.

Our research disputes that.  When we strip out athletic scholarships and focus on all other athletic budget spending, we find that McNeese's budget increased by $1,687,903; the increase did not "disappear," as McNeese asserts.

Many other universities blame the rise in scholarships for the budget increase. But when scholarship costs are taken out, athletic budgets for these 10 schools still have increased 44 percent.

Only 20 programs in the nation actually make money on college athletics; Louisiana State University has one of them. LSU athletics gave $10 million in profits back to the university last year.

Still, in the past eight years, six state universities' athletics budgets have increased, percentage-wise, more than LSU's.

"I think all presidents, all campus leadership would like to have successful teams," Commissioner Rallo says.  "They believe that it adds to the texture, if you will, of that educational experience."

But university sports come with a cost.  Budgets show these 10 universities will give close to $35 million this year to their athletics departments.

You certainly don't have to be on an athletic scholarship to enjoy university sports.

"It's definitely a valued part of university," a Louisiana Tech student reminds us.

"I love going to watch sports," a Southeastern student says.

But these students think, when times get tough, their university leaders need to prioritize, and push athletic programs to spend wisely.

"We like athletics but jeez, Louise!" a Northwestern State student exclaims. "That's a lot."

"I think they should be spending more on our education system and less on the sports," another student says.

Their futures won't play out on the Jumbotron but inside the classroom, where it's harder than ever to make those big plays after so many years of big budget cuts.

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Data sources: Board of Regents, UL System, staff research

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