During March Madness, our nation’s collective obsession with a two-week basketball tournament is on full display. But that means it’s also the time of year for the occasional lament and hand-wringing in some national media outlets about how, in their estimation, intercollegiate athletics undercuts the values of learning and the principles of higher education.
Case in point is the Washington Post’s March 14 story — which appeared in a number of publications, including the Herald-Leader — about the rising salaries of coaches in what are traditionally non-revenue producing sports.
The logic of this article and others like it goes like this: Coaching salaries have increased significantly; the salaries of faculty have not grown at the same rate. Therefore, athletics is undercutting learning and intellectual pursuits at the core of university life.
That’s not how economics works, nor is it the case at the University of Kentucky, which was one of the institutions of focus in the article.
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First, UK’s athletics program receives no tax dollars from the state. So, state appropriations that do help pay many faculty salaries pay for none of the salaries — including coaches — in our athletics program. Nor does the athletics program receive any General Fund appropriation from the university’s budget.
On the contrary, the athletics program is fully financially self-sufficient.
The fact that its budget has increased significantly in recent years is, in large part, because of the increased value of the media rights sold to businesses that want to advertise during television and digital programming featuring UK teams and those in the association we play in, the Southeastern Conference.
Second, at the UK athletics foots its own bill — completely. They pay the full freight — in-state and out-of-state tuition — for student athletes who receive aid and scholarships.
Third, they pay the full cost — rent, utilities, maintenance and security — for the facilities they utilize, facilities frequently used across our campus by other departments and by the entire student body.
Fourth, and most significant, they give back, substantially and increasingly. UK athletics provides millions of dollars each year in contributions toward academic scholarships, programming, and academic initiatives such as research on violence against women.
And, in October, we formally opened a new $110 million Jacobs Science Building, much of which — $65 million — is being funded by UK Athletics.
This state-of-the-art classroom and research building would not have been possible without this investment in the academic success of students and student-athletes alike. The UK athletics program and our academic programs are dedicated to student success on the field, on the court, in the classroom and in the laboratory. We have an academic-athletic partnership that we would not trade for the world.
Moreover, we can tell you, as faculty and academic administrators at a university with one of the largest programs in the country, athletics adds a sense of vibrancy and community to our campus and our state like few other organizations.
Universities and their athletics departments are, by no means, monolithic. Every institution is different. No model is perfect — either in athletics or academics.
For each of the last four years, for example, our president, Eli Capilouto, and our board of trustees have made sustained pay raises for faculty and staff a priority. Each year, faculty and staff have received merit raises and, as a result, we’ve made progress toward more competitive salaries among those institutions we are aspiring to emulate.
Have we made as much progress as we want? No, we haven’t. Salaries have grown incrementally, not by leaps. There’s more work to do and the financial challenges toward getting there are real and substantial.
But salaries for coaches have not deterred our progress. In fact, the ability of athletics to fund vital infrastructure on our campus — and pay its own bills entirely — has, in many ways, made us more competitive for academic and research talent, not less.
In fact, the UK Athletics investment in the Jacobs Science Building alone is greater than all the coaches’ salaries combined for multiple years. And that’s a story that deserves to be told, as well.
Tim Tracy is University of Kentucky provost, Mark Kornbluh is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Mark Meier is chair of the Department of Chemistry.
At issue: Washington Post article, “As NCAA money trickles down, even tennis coaches are outearning professors”