By Nanette Asimov
With a few words in the new state budget, lawmakers will ban spending taxpayer money on intercollegiate athletics — and end a controversy that started when a sharp-eyed UC Berkeley professor found that university officials had changed details of the law.
University of California officials acknowledge asking the state to remove athletics from the list of programs required to be “self-supporting and not subsidized by the state,” but say the reason was bookkeeping and not an attempt to pirate taxpayer money meant for academics.
In March, computer science Professor Brian Barsky was checking changes to the state budget when he noticed a subtle difference that could, he believed, allow public money to flow to UC baseball, gymnastics, rugby and other cash-strapped teams, at the expense of academics.
“Without any discussion, explanation or publicity, the time-honored prohibition on using state funds for intercollegiate athletics at UC disappeared from the state budget,” Barsky said.
UC officials insist that no campus has spent state money on athletics in at least 30 years, and that doing so would violate UC policy.
Yet Barsky wrote to editors, stirred up debate through an opinion piece in the Daily Cal, and motivated UC labor leaders to complain to Sacramento.
Now, state lawmakers have approved new language for the proposed 2011-12 budget that bans the use of taxpayer money for intercollegiate athletics.
“It’s gratifying to know that this policy will now be explicitly codified in the state budget,” Barsky said.
Concern over the issue runs high on campuses because state money for UC is increasingly scarce: Lawmakers approved a $500 million cut to UC’s 2011-12 budget in March, and tried to cut another $150 million in the budget vetoed Thursday by Gov. Jerry Brown. The cuts are on top of millions in reductions over the past few years.
UC athletics are also in financial trouble. While a number of Cal’s teams — including the baseball team which made the College World Series this year — have been saved from elimination by private donations, four of the 27 intercollegiate teams at UC Davis were not so lucky.
Patrick Lenz, UC’s budget chief, called the issue of diverting state money to athletics “nonsensical.”
“The language gives the perception that there’s a problem,” Lenz said, noting that UC has never diverted money, despite drastic cuts to the university’s budget. “I’m not sure what we need the language for.”
The issue of how UC pays for intercollegiate athletics has been particularly contentious at UC Berkeley. The campus has paid an average of $11 million a year to help fund some two dozen money-losing teams, according to a panel of faculty and alumni convened last year after the Faculty Senate urged Chancellor Robert Birgeneau to stop subsidizing athletics.
The money provided to the athletics department doesn’t come from state funding, but from income generated by professional degree programs and student registration fees, said campus spokesman Dan Mogulof, adding that the annual subsidy will drop to $5 million by 2014.
Many faculty members are suspicious of the administration’s willingness to subsidize athletics at a time when every UC campus is struggling to preserve academic quality, so Barsky’s discovery rang alarm bells among UC faculty and staff statewide.
“Eliminating a control that helps ensure the prioritization of UC’s core (academic) mission is not responsible management, particularly in a time of budget crisis,” Lakesha Harrison, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees representing UC workers, wrote in a May 17 letter to lawmakers.
Harrison asked legislators to restore athletics to the list of self-sustaining programs — which they didn’t do — and to approve budget language barring state funds for athletics — which they did.
Ironically, the financial loophole was the unintended consequence of an attempt to hold UC fiscally accountable.
Last year, the state began auditing UC at the request of state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. Auditors noticed that UC identified athletics as an “auxiliary enterprise” — one of those campus services that people pay for, like parking or dining.
“Intercollegiate athletics should have been listed under student services” because student service fees are their primary source of support at campuses other than Berkeley and UCLA, Lenz said.
So UC changed its books, then asked the Department of Finance to change the state budget, which also listed athletics as an auxiliary enterprise.
“Our intent was to make the change consistent,” Lenz said.
The problem, as Barsky quickly recognized, was that removing athletics from auxiliary enterprises meant the program no longer had to be self-supporting. And that suggested to some that UC was trying to legalize the use of general fund money for athletics.
Fueling suspicions was the escalating financial need of Cal’s athletics.
Not only was Berkeley struggling to save high-profile teams like baseball from being eliminated, but the UC regents also had approved a $1 billion loan to remodel Cal’s Memorial Stadium that was to be repaid from athletics’ thin revenues.
Was UC trying to pinch taxpayer money for those purposes?
“Nothing’s further from the truth,” Lenz said, noting that Cal tapped alumni donors, not taxpayers, to rescue its teams.
Yet faculty and UC workers say there is comfort in having Lenz’s promise confirmed in state law.
“It holds UC accountable,” said Julian Posada, a food service worker at UC Santa Cruz and executive vice president of the AFSCME union.
— Reach Nanette Asimov at email@example.com