The Eastern Kentucky University Board of Regents will meet Dec. 5 to decide which parts of EKU’s budget will be cut and by how much. This is a critical time; what happens in the next few months will have an outsized effect on the university’s future. For this reason it is important to look closely at the argument the administration is making in favor of athletics.
EKU President Michael Benson has often referred to athletics as the university’s “front porch,” implying that donations and students come because they know about our sports teams. This is called the “Flutie effect,” named after Doug Flutie whose Hail Mary pass supposedly raised Boston College’s profile and led to an increase in student quality and donations. However, a 2004 study by the Knight Commission showed that the “Flutie effect” is largely illusory. The commission suggested that a decrease in spending on athletics would free up resources for other priorities with no detriment to student quality or alumni donations. I understand the intuitive appeal of hearing EKU mentioned on ESPN, but when making important decisions at a time of financial crisis, we must demand more than anecdotes. The best evidence so far does not support the alleged indirect benefit of spending on athletics.
On Nov. 1, Benson emailed the EKU community about the impressive achievements of student Tyler Swafford, who won a prestigious Mitchell Scholarship and started at quarterback on the same day. Benson cited this as an example of how athletics and academics “support each other” and said that Swafford’s dream to play Division I football brought him to EKU, and once here, his involvement in the honors program helped him win the Mitchell Scholarship.
Benson’s email linked to a budget information web page that had a post entitled “The Value of EKU Athletics.” The email, the web page and several recent posts on EKU Stories appear to be a coordinated effort to defend and promote athletics at a time of reductions in funding from state government.
In 2015, the regents approved EKU’s strategic plan. I applaud using the strategic plan as a guide for determining our priorities; that is the purpose of a strategic plan, and many hours were spent crafting it. However, athletics is explicitly mentioned in only two of the plan’s 74 strategies and not mentioned at all in the first and most important goal: academic excellence.
I’ve now seen two presentations about the academic success of EKU’s student-athletes, and the impressive resources available to them in the Bratzke Student-Athlete Academic Success Center. Indeed, student athletes have a higher average GPA and graduation rate than the average EKU student. This is laudable and in line with EKU’s mission and I have no doubt that these resources benefit the academic performance of the student-athletes. However, the implication of these results is that all students would similarly benefit should they be afforded the same academic support. So, if we saved some money on athletics perhaps we could expand the Bratzke Center to all EKU students. Given the likely performance funding focus on undergraduate degrees coming from the state government, this could result in more funding for EKU.
Rather than spend precious resources on athletics (and EKU subsidizes athletics to the tune of more than $10 million a year), EKU would be better off spending that money on things that distinguish us from our competitors: academic programs, small class sizes and excellence in teaching. Students who choose a school in order to root for the team on the field or court have other options with which we cannot possibly compete. But the field is equally tilted in EKU’s favor if the competition is about the quality of instruction and student learning. I strongly urge EKU administrators and the Board of Regents to weigh all the evidence, consider what is best for EKU’s long-term health, and most importantly what is best for students. Protecting athletics while canceling programs and reducing faculty cannot be supported by such an analysis.
Matthew P. Winslow is a professor of psychology and chief faculty innovator at Eastern Kentucky University.