California Forum

Peter Schrag: Has UC Berkeley mortgaged itself to football?

By now it’s no secret that at a lot of big-time football schools, the phrase “student-athlete” has become an oxymoron.

The University of California, Berkeley, often described as the best public university in the country, maybe in the world, is struggling hard to preserve itself as something better. And at the moment, it’s not doing so well.

Earlier this fall, the NCAA, hardly a symbol of honorable conduct in big-time college sports, produced numbers showing that Cal football and men’s basketball players have among the worst graduation rates in the country. Some 44 percent of Cal football players graduate in six years, according to the count, the lowest in the Pac 12 Conference; 38 percent of Cal’s basketball players get a diploma.

In football, Cal is looking up not just at Stanford, its arch rival, 93 percent of whose football players graduate (and, unlike the Bears in recent years, win games), or at UCLA, 82 percent of whose football players graduate, but at a long list of other big-time football powers, none of them famous for academic distinction. In graduation rates for all NCAA Division 1 schools, Cal is close to the bottom.

Release of the numbers last month, amplified by an attention-getting analysis authored by retired UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor John Cummins and graduate student Kirsten Hextrum, has sent shock waves around the campus. The department of athletics and its friends are playing full-court damage control.

Sandy Barbour, Berkeley’s director of athletics, acknowledged the problem and promises to turn things around. Early indicators of academic progress in the past year are encouraging, she says, “But, we need to do better.”

A year ago she fired football coach Jeff Tedford, in part, say her friends, because he failed to do enough to help his players succeed academically. In the sports world, the explanation was simpler: Tedford’s three losing seasons. Barbour told me it was some of both: “downward trends” both on the field and in the classroom.

But in the eyes of some Berkeley professors and administrators – and for many beyond the campus – the attention given the new numbers about athletes’ graduation rates seems to raise the specter of older and more fundamental issues.

One is the familiar debate about the role of the increasingly professionalized “revenue” sports in higher education. It’s no secret that, as Barbour says, football is the “financial engine” powering Berkeley’s entire intercollegiate sports program. That troubles a lot of people – and increasingly so as they become more conscious of the damage concussions and other football injuries inflict on players.

The other issue is the controversy about UC’s “holistic” or “comprehensive review” policy – admission based less on test scores and high school grades than on an applicant’s whole record, particularly the social and economic handicaps that he or she overcame to achieve it. Berkeley does a lot of stretching in admitting low-scoring students, athletes among them, that it regards as otherwise desirable.

Comprehensive review emerged after the passage in 1996 of Proposition 209, which banned race preferences in public education, employment and contracting. It was to be one way of fostering “diversity” in UC enrollment. Some regarded it suspiciously as a way to get around Proposition 209. In any case, its passage never really ended the bitter divisions about affirmative action associated with it.

In a widely circulated five-page paper defending Berkeley’s intercollegiate athletics program, Vice Chancellor John Wilton uses the word “diversity” seven times. Berkeley now practices “class-based affirmative action” a former member of a Berkeley faculty admissions committee told me. And some UC people make no secret of the fact that one reason they value “revenue sports” athletes – black football and basketball players – is that they raise the racial diversity numbers.

The dismally low graduation rates seem to be confined to men’s sports. Some 80 percent of women athletes graduate within six years, compared to 92 percent for all women. For males the comparable figures are 55 percent and 88 percent.

The athletics department and its faculty friends pin much of the responsibility not on the admission criteria but on unrealistic professional sports ambitions – only a few get an NBA or NFL contract – and on the coaches’ failure to press them to take and complete the courses required for graduation.

Beyond that, however, Berkeley has a two-cultures problem. Football and basketball players – and maybe some other athletes – are not as well integrated into the larger campus as, say, their counterparts at Stanford. They don’t get as much academic support.

Fueling the two-culture issue is the chronic matter of cost – what the university kicks in to the sports program – and what someone called “its gold plated” spending. Brian Barsky, a Berkeley computer science professor and vocal critic of the athletics program, says between 2003 and 2011, athletics “drained campus coffers of more than $88 million that could have been used instead to support the university’s core mission.” Cummins and Hextrum talk about “accumulating deficits over nearly 20 years totaling some $170 million at a time when the campus faced substantial staff layoffs and furloughs.”

Barbour claims those numbers are flat wrong. With the exception of one year, she said, there have been no deficits. But there’s no question that its football and basketball coaches, like other big time coaches, earn 10 times as much as the average full professor, or that Barbour gets paid more than the chancellor, or that the sports program isn’t self-supporting.

More important still is the huge debt UC Berkeley faces for the cost of the recent rebuilding of Memorial Stadium and the construction of the adjacent “Student-Athlete High Performance Center” – all together totaling more than $450 million, some of it to be paid by 100-year “century” bonds. All told, including interest, those facilities will eventually cost $1.25 billion.

Paying it off depends on football. And given the dismal records of the past two seasons and the disappointing sales of expensive long-term rights to seats in the stadium – originally priced at $225,000 apiece – that were supposed to help retire the bonds, a strategy since supplemented by a “more diversified approach,” that’s hardly a sure thing. What is a sure thing is that Berkeley has mortgaged itself in perpetuity to the success of its football team.

All the numbers are a little squishy. You can’t compare Cal with Boise State, or Kansas or Arizona, where the academic standards are hardly as demanding. Nor, on the other hand, with Stanford, which, as one professor said, “is filthy rich” and has resources UC can only dream about. You also can’t compare Cal with countless other places that don’t expect athletics to be self-supporting – or don’t have the large array of sports that Berkeley has.

But all that still leaves the underlying questions: Is there an inherent tension between the highest academic standards and professionalized “revenue sports” like football and basketball; and is there a similar conflict between a public university, subject to every kind of demand and political pressure and those high standards?

Sandy Barbour may again get graduation rates to the point where they’re no longer embarrassing, and her many successors may pay off those century bonds without “draining campus coffers.” But as long as Berkeley hopes to maintain the prestige it now enjoys, it will struggle with those questions.