Zurik: Universities find questionable methods to boost athletics spending
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Professors laid off. Classes cut. Campus buildings falling apart, and students left wondering why.
These are not simply the risks to higher education in the future. This has been happening, in slow and painful stages, for the last eight years across the state of Louisiana.
Mary Brocato can attest to it.
"I say that I'm the Angelina Jolie of dogs," she jokes with us at her home in northwest Louisiana, surrounded by her six dogs. "They're a lot of company for me."
Brocato lived in New Orleans for 20 years before moving to Natchitoches, where she spent 12 years teaching journalism at Northwestern State University. In the past eight years, Brocato has lost both her job and her husband.
Cutbacks at Northwestern State eliminated the journalism program there; the university fired Brocato, a tenured professor, in the spring of 2011.
"The real sin or crime there was those students… who had started and who had been in the program and got caught in the middle," Brocato tells us. "And they could not get a degree in journalism."
The year before Northwestern State cut journalism, chemistry, economics, physics and other programs, the school sent $3,689,522 from its operating budget to athletics. By the time Brocato left, that athletics supplement had increased by almost $300,000.
That's roughly the same amount as her journalism department's annual budget; Northwestern State raised its monetary support to athletics while cutting a program that cost about as much money.
"It shows where the emphasis is," Brocato says, "that there seems to be more emphasis and more accommodation for athletics than there is for academics. And I don't like it. I think it's very dishonest… because I don't think people understand that."
Brocato's professorship paid her $77,600 a year. A year after they let her go, the athletics department paid Mississippi Valley State University nearly the same amount of money, $75,000, to come play them in football.
Such guarantees are a surprise to some of the NSU students we spoke with, on campus in Natchitoches.
"I would cry," one tells us. "Is that like Information that everybody knows? That should be known by everyone."
Also in 2012, Northwestern State paid another football opponent, Arkansas-Monticello, $37,500. That comes to roughly $112,000 in game guarantees - for a football team that finished that season with a 4-7 record.
"That's literally throwing money away," says the student.
"It blows my mind," says another co-ed.
It wouldn't be fair to judge a collegiate athletics program strictly on its performance on the field. But from a public funding perspective, do game guarantees make sense while Louisiana's budget crisis winds on, without an end in sight?
"I think you could find examples of expenditures that, in isolation, cause you to question," acknowledged Pres. Jim Henderson of Northwestern State. "But you have to have… an 11-game, a 12-game season."
Game guarantees are common in college football. Schools receive game guarantees for playing many non-conference road games, too, and most in Louisiana receive more money in guarantees than they pay out.
But for smaller schools like NSU, the price usually is not so high.
McNeese State also cut programs, and during the same time period paid large game guarantees for football: $115,000 to Prairie View, and $135,000 to Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
"It doesn't make any sense to me at all, no," says Brocato.
Just as NSU continued to cut its education budget, its men's basketball team brought in a sports psychologist to speak. He cost $5,500 for the day. The school even hosted a media luncheon that cost about $2,000.
"It's so terrible I can't even make a comment, really," our fired professor says. "You're telling me things that make me really sad about the universities' priorities."
The state's governing board of higher education allows universities to send 3 percent of their operating budgets to athletics each year. Those guidelines allow Louisiana Tech to send athletics up to $5,143,988. This year the school budgeted less, $4,592,640 - but used an accounting tactic to give even more.
Some schools charge athletic salaries to other departments, non-athletic departments. This year La. Tech budgeted $727,151 in athletic salaries to non-athletic departments.
If the state didn't allow that, Louisiana Tech would be over the maximum allowed to supplement athletics.
As we examined the documentation, the details of how La. Tech diverted these extra funds to athletics, some of the charges still didn't make sense. So we made the five-hour drive north, to Ruston, to investigate.
"Does Mary Kay Hungate teach here?" we ask a worker in La. Tech's kinesiology department.
"She's not here, she's over in athletics," the staffer responds.
"Does she teach here?"
Louisiana Tech records show assistant athletic director Mary Kay Hungate and track coach Gary Stanley have a portion of their salaries charged to the College of Education, specifically its kinesiology department.
"What about Gary Stanley?" we ask the staffer
"Never heard of him," she tells us. "He doesn't teach kinesiology. I do the course loads and he's not on there for teaching."
Apparently student athletes at La. Tech can get kinesiology credits for playing sports; Hungate oversees that. But in university documents she is listed as a "kinesiology instructor," which led the program to pay $38,850 of her salary - money the athletics department doesn't have to cover.
"So she is not teaching a kinesiology class?" we ask again.
"No," the staffer confirms.
Even though she's listed as an instructor, Hungate doesn't teach a class.
Northwestern State maxes out the amount of money it can supplement to athletics. The athletics department allocates another $350,000 to non-athletics departments, mostly to the school's recruiting department. The campus recruiting department has a budget of $505,649 - and athletic department salaries make up 30 percent of that budget, even though just 8 percent of students on campus play sports.
"It's not just recruiting athletes," Dr. Henderson insists as we ask about the recruiting budget. "It's recruiting for the university as a whole."
Athlete recruitment is a big part of that department's mission, Henderson agrees, "But remember, the vast majority of our athletes are not on scholarship, right? So they're recruiting students to come in."
Nicholls State University has its teacher education department and its grounds department fund some athletic salaries.
"I'm not sure why we do that, or why we've done that," says Nicholls State president Bruce Murphy. But he says that will soon come to an end.
McNeese State in Lake Charles budgeted to charge $439,946 to other departments. McNeese State's president declined our request for an on-camera interview, and the school never addressed this topic in its written statement to us.
In 2015, state guidelines allowed McNeese to supplement athletics with an operating funds transfer up to $3,489,216. The school did that, but also gave athletics another $833,789 in gambling revenue; a legislative measure sends casino money to McNeese State to fund education initiatives. And the school sent most of that gambling money to athletics.
McNeese shifted $439,946 in athletics salaries to non-athletic departments, too. A school that could only supplement athletics with $3.5 million of its operating budget found a way to help athletics with more than $4,762,951.
To play in college athletics, someone has to pay. And some universities in Louisiana certainly have paid. But some professors and students may count that cost in terms of jobs lost, higher tuition and fewer opportunities to choose the right course of study.
"It hurt my heart when our journalism program was discontinued," Mary Brocato recalls, "because I knew what a good program it was. And I was told over and over, 'We can't afford it, we can't afford it.' And so, when I see documentation like you've shown me, it just makes me really sad."
But Brocato says the school could have afforded the program, after all: "They could have, if they didn't give so much to athletics."
Data sources: Board of Regents, UL System, staff research
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