College vs. College Sports: Why You Should Ignore the Outrage at the University of Florida

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Budget cuts have forced the school to slash its computer science program, yet its sports budget has increased. Here's why the administration isn't choosing athletics over academics.

615_University_of_Florida_Football_Reuters.jpg

Reuters

It sounds like the ultimate example of a school choosing sports over academics.

Faced with draconian state budget cuts, the University of Florida recently announced a plan that, as Ars Technica put it, would "gut" the school's computer science department to save about $1.4 million. The story caught fire yesterday after Forbes contributor Steven Salzberg pointed out those savings were actually smaller than the budget increase Florida's athletic department received this year.

The headline: "University of Florida Eliminates Computer Science Department, Increases Athletic Budgets. Hmm."

This is, frankly, a misleading way of looking at the story, not least because the school isn't entirely nixing the department. However, what's happening in Florida does tell us something about the nature of big time college athletics, as well as the priorities of the state government and the college's graduates.

GATORS, INC.

The controversy at Florida is playing out against a truly horrific financial backdrop -- the sort of scenario that King Joffrey on Game of Thrones might dream up to torture his accountant.

Since 2006, the state has cleaved 30 percent of the university's budget, or about $240 million total, according tot a recent op-ed by a former school administrator. Meanwhile, state law limits the university's ability to raise tuition. Its only option: cut. Rather than spread the pain around evenly, the College of Engineering plans to break apart its Computer & Information Science and Engineering Department, sending about half the faculty to other parts of the school, cutting staff and teaching assistants, and refocusing the mission of its remaining professors on teaching. Certainly it's a sad situation, but it's also not a wholesale abandonment of computer science as a discipline. 

Increasing the athletic budget while important programs suffer might seem obscene. But it's not.

Here's why. Florida's sports teams are, for all intents and purposes, an independent business. Legally, its athletic department is a separate nonprofit entity. It's one of the roughly 22 programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision that turned a profit in 2010; according to filings with the Department of Education, it made about $10 million on $123 million in revenue.

Part of that profit is returned to the university. Since 1990, the athletic department has contributed about $61 million to the school's operating budget, including funds for the library and scholarships. Last year, it gave $6.1 million, as illustrated in the graph below from the department's 2011-2012 operating budget

Florida_Donations.PNG

Gators Inc.* is, to a degree, doing its part. But here's where, in my mind, the relationship between the university's general finances and the athletic department's get complicated. This year, the university is facing $38 million cuts. Meanwhile, the athletic department's budget projected that it would generate $36 million from booster contributions. This is the free market speaking -- alums putting their money where their heart is. And some of these same donors may be giving to other parts of the university. But I have to wonder whether Florida's graduate network, that fabled Gator Nation, might need to reconsider its priorities, and whether the school itself might want to nudge them in that direction. Perhaps there's also room to cut in the athletic budget so that the department could return even more of its profits to the school. But at what point would budget cuts compromise on-the-field performance? And at what point would lagging performance compromise its ability to generate profits?  

These aren't easy questions. Like a select few other athletic programs in the country, Florida sports have evolved into their own enterprise. Perhaps in hard times, the department, or its boosters, should do more to support the university's educational mission. Or perhaps they're doing what they should. I'm not sure anybody knows for sure. 

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*Not its actual name. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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