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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Writing and Nothingness

"If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back at you," wrote Nietzsche.

Here, for the first time on University Diaries, we present a piece of writing which is that abyss, that very abyss, gazing back at you.

This writing is acquainted with the night. It is the music of the night, the dark night of the soul, the night thoughts of a classical physicist. It is the place Iris Murdoch, describing her descent into Alzheimer's, called a "very, very bad quiet place, a dark place..."

Some readers, unwilling to descend, will stop reading this writing -- gaze at it too long, as Nietzsche presciently saw, and the abyss will confront you. But I ask you to join me as I gaze at this nothingness. There is much to learn.

The writing concerns the athletic program at the University of Oregon, overseen by President Dave Frohnmayer, who suffers from Stage III-Jocksniffery.

Here, culled from two earlier writers on the subject, are some facts you first need to know.


The current price for a new University of Oregon basketball arena is $213.5 million, a significant increase over the recent estimate of $160 million.

[T]he hire [of new athletic director Pat Kilkenny] was driven by only one agenda - to build the arena. The position description is unusual: It doesn't list even the most standard academic qualifications for the job, although the person hired is expected to "function as a senior official of the university."

The administration has defended Kilkenny's lack of a university degree by citing the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan and Purdue University as places where "boosters" have been hired as athletic directors. The comparison is spurious. All three have college degrees and cannot be characterized as "boosters" in the vein of Kilkenny. Prior to becoming athletic directors, Barry Alvarez was Wisconsin's head football coach and Michigan's Bill Martin was a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee and taught courses at Michigan.

The pressure to raise funds for the arena has caused the UO to issue other problematic statements. [President] Frohnmayer and others have argued that since the arena and [fired AD] Moos' buyout are donor-financed, academics are unaffected by the cost of these ventures.

This is fanciful. A portion of the proceeds of the sale of Westmoreland student housing is being diverted to purchase property that may eventually play some role in the arena project. That even a penny of this money could go for athletics is hurtful to the UO's academic mission, which for years has struggled with frightfully strained conditions: For lack of space, music students have had to practice in bathrooms. Departments have had to convert not only bathrooms but also storage closets into faculty offices.

The earmarking of Westmoreland money for possible use on the arena makes everyone stakeholders in the project. This arena venture should not, therefore, be allowed to stay in the hands of two or three UO administrators and a couple of donors.

Frohnmayer wrote in The Register-Guard this year, "We take great pride in such measures of our academic success as the graduation rates of our student-athletes. Those rates have risen steadily in recent years. ..."

What kind of snow job is this? The NCAA's findings indicate that the graduation rate of UO athletes has fallen from 79 percent to 47 percent in five years. Obvious strategies for boosting academic performance, such as making sure all students attend classes and have time to focus on exams, are routinely ignored. This year we saw an increase in the number of football games, and we have again scheduled a Civil War game during final exams - despite a University Senate resolution against this practice. The culprit is, of course, the vast sums required to finance UO's sports machine.


The recent announcements of a $2 million buyout of the contract of Bill Moos, the university's athletic director, and a $4 million learning center solely for athletes are deeply troubling. ...[W]e find it increasingly hard to tell whether the University of Oregon is an academic research and teaching institution devoted to the education of our state's students, or a minor league training ground for elite athletes. Academic departments struggle to make ends meet because of repeated budget cuts, but the president allows lavish spending by the athletic department. These actions have consequences for our students and faculty, and the university's academic stature.

The hard numbers:

The primary losers are our students. The university provides scholarships to several hundred student-athletes, many of whom do not meet admission requirements, yet we cannot find sufficient financial aid to help Oregon's neediest high school students. The athletic department spent more than $1 million from 2003 to 2005 on recruiting, including $140,000 for a single weekend for 25 football recruits. The same $1 million would pay for 62 talented biology, journalism or art students to attend the university for a year, or 15 students for four years.

Students are affected by poor resource allocation in other ways. Class sizes have grown since 2000 because of a 20 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment, without an equivalent increase in full-time faculty. Students are closed out of classes because there are not enough faculty to teach them. Graduate students, the life-blood of a research university, have dropped by 10 percent since 1970. Instead of hiring new faculty and attracting new graduate students, the university has devoted scarce resources to boosting the number of athletic coaches and staff by 25 percent since 1994.

...The Biology Department today has 20 percent fewer office staff than in 1997, but 20 percent more students. Since 1994 its annual budget has increased by 47 percent, from $2.7 million to $3.96 million, while the athletic department's increased by 224 percent, from $18.5 million to $41.5 million. The average cost to teach a student in the biology department this year is $705; the cost per student-athlete in the athletic department is over $92,000. The head coaches of football and men's basketball together make more than all 30 full-time tenure-track biology professors.

Faculty salaries at UO are the lowest in the American Association of Universities. Ancillary support services for teaching and research are fast disappearing. New and current faculty members are being lured away by other institutions. Many faculty now pay for classroom photocopying, business phone calls, and even students' books. Meanwhile, the athletic department furnishes its offices with leather sofas, pays its coaches multimillion dollar salaries, charters private jets, etc.

Our academic reputation is declining. UO's 2004 four- and five-year graduation rates, at 36.4 percent and 56.7 percent respectively, are significantly below our academic peers and near the bottom of the Pacific-10 Conference. Oregon is the only Pac-10 school to be recently downgraded by the Carnegie Trust from the top to the second tier of national research universities. The 2007 US News and World Report college ratings rank us 120th in the country, the best among Oregon public universities but still mediocre. Our overall graduate program ratings are lower than 20 years ago. It is worse than ironic that our academic rankings are dropping as our football rankings rise.

The over-emphasis on athletics extends even to fundraising. The university's $600 million capital campaign is on target to raise $200 million for athletics (not including possible donations for the planned basketball arena). The Oregonian reports that this percentage for sports in a capital campaign is the highest in the nation -- in fact, more than double the national norm. The university has a responsibility to ask donors to support academics first, before donating to athletics.

Many people think athletics makes money for the university, but that is not true. At Notre Dame and Ohio State, the athletic departments gives back more than $10 million every year to education -- but at UO, not a penny. A few years ago the faculty asked the athletic department to add a mere 25 cents to football and basketball tickets, to be earmarked for student scholarships. They refused. We asked that a small percentage of every donation to athletics be earmarked for education. The administration refused. All athletic revenues and gifts go entirely to the athletic budget, which has been growing four times faster than the university's.

Pat Kilkenny, the local moneybags hired to push more university-destroying athletic projects through at the impoverished University of Oregon, is the author of what we are now going to make our way through. Pat Kilkenny is our guide to the underworld. This way, please.

UO athletics serious about academics and financial self-sufficiency

In February, on my first day as athletic director at the University of Oregon, my wife, Stephanie, and I attended a ceremony honoring the first 20 recipients of the UO's Faculty Excellence Awards. The event underscored for us the qualities of an outstanding and dedicated faculty.

As the professors were recognized for their scholarly pursuits, we felt the same pride and thrill that we have experienced many times at athletic events. Stephanie and I, as well as everyone in the athletic department, are proud to be part of the UO team, a team made up of not only world-class teachers, researchers and students, but also top-notch coaches and student athletes. [Beginning to get a chill?]

We cherish the chance to work with such dedicated individuals as part of the universitywide mission to mold global citizens who "question critically, think logically, communicate clearly, act creatively and live ethically." As we shape the future of UO athletics, the university mission statement, which calls on faculty and staff to provide students with a framework for lifelong learning, is an essential guidepost. Our vision for the future is one in which the UO athletic department plays an important role in the collaborative effort to maintain and enhance the UO's place as one of the best institutions of higher learning in the country and perhaps the finest public university in the West. [Don't look down! Keep going!]

With that in mind, there are a couple of important points we would like to share about UO athletics.

• Our athletes are students first, and like all other parts of the institution, our goal in athletics is to ensure they receive the best possible experience academically as well as athletically. Our faculty and coaches provide challenging and engaging work, which develops the students not only as athletes but as complete citizens. [Eyes front! Forward!]

Of course, we would like our teams to be successful in the Pac 10 Conference and on a national stage, bringing home championship banners in all sports. Our most important objective, however, is ensuring that as many of our student athletes as possible don robes and mortarboards at commencement.

As we celebrate our academic successes - and there are many - we are also mindful that some athletes are not meeting expectations. Rest assured we are doing everything we can to ensure that all of our student athletes find success in a rigorous academic setting.

• Few words in academia are as popular today as "sustainability." The UO campus is home to cutting-edge experts searching for innovative ways to incorporate principles of sustainability into fields such as architecture, urban design and chemistry. Even in athletics, the UO strives for sustainability - fiscal sustainability.

The UO has one of only 17 self-supporting athletic departments in the country. That means we receive no funding from the state or the university general funds. [Don't stop to argue! Move!] UO athletics depend in large part on football revenue from television contracts, nonconference and postseason games, as well as gifts and gate receipts. While admirable, that dependence does, in fact, make us vulnerable to severe fiscal consequences should the Ducks' gridiron successes falter. Placing such a fiscal burden on the shoulders of committed coaches and student athletes is unfair.

While Duck fans take pride in repeating, "It never rains at Autzen Stadium," the athletic department must prepare itself for a financial rainy day by becoming a self-sustaining department, guaranteeing our financial independence for generations to come. This would ensure that UO athletics prosper for decades without subsidies from the state or university.

A new basketball arena would serve an important function in supporting the department's financial responsibilities. [How? How? How? you keep asking.... Shut up!] Fiscal sustainability would make us better prepared to serve the university by allowing us to further emphasize academics and to continue to pump money back into the university's budget.

I want to make it clear that as athletic director I am committed to making sure every decision I make is in keeping with the UO mission. The importance of keeping athletics in step with academics was never as clear to me as it was back on my first day, at the ceremony for the Faculty Excellence Awards. That day, Stephanie and I were inspired by faculty members' commitments to teaching and visionary research.

In my mind, the ceremony laid down a gauntlet, a personal challenge for me to rise to the level of excellence attained routinely by UO faculty and staff. As I strive for that goal, I continue to feel pride and excitement just being part of the University of Oregon team. [You made it! You've gazed unflinchingly at the prose void... It's time to shake yourself off and return to the light...]