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Gavin Newsom Seeks Reform At Cal And Other UC Schools

Is this just saber rattling or is it something genuine?

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Ezra Shaw

According to ESPN, former SF mayor, current California Lieutenant Governor, and walking Ken doll, Gavin Newsom, is wading into the ring on athletics and academics:

In a pair of letters sent this week to the heads of the University of California and California State University systems, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom expressed concern in how he thinks academics are not being prioritized to the correct standard in athletic programs throughout the state.

To change this, Newsom believes contracts for every athletic director at the universities in both systems should "stipulate aggressive benchmarks for improvement in graduation and academic progress rates of (sic)  face termination, period."

In a letter addressed to Janet Napolitano, the president of the University of California system, which includes Cal, UCLA and six other NCAA-affiliated schools, Newsom cited the poor graduation success rate of the Golden Bears football team -- 48 percent in 2012, and 44 percent in '13 - as examples that show change is needed.

"We have some of the lowest graduation rates in all of college sports and we're talking arguably the finest public university in the world, not just the United States, and it's a disgrace," Newsom said.

So, let's break this down here.  The first thing to note is that Gavin Newsom sent letters.  Two letters.  In the political word, that's a CYA move.  People LOVE to send Sternly Worded Letters, because then they can say "I Told You So" later.  Even if there is a 0.1% of anything coming from the Sternly Worded Letters, it doesn't really matter.  Newsom is an extremely political animal and remember that there is an election coming up.  For the vast majority of these Sternly Worded Letters, they are promptly ignored.  So, in general, get ready for absolutely nothing to come out of these Sternly Worded Letters.

Since this one relates to college sports, however, ESPN picked it up and wrote the above story.  So, let's break down what it says.  Newsom thinks that academics are not being prioritized correctly compared to athletics in the UC and CSU system.  In specific, he notes Cal football's poor graduation rate as a "disgrace," which, coincidentally, it is.  So far, he's not necessarily wrong.

Newsom's response to these concerns is to place penalties in the contracts that would lead to the firing of the AD if certain academic benchmarks are not met.  I think this misses the mark for three main reasons, two of which relate to a lack of context to Newsom's comments and the other relates to the role of an AD.

State Divestment In The UC System

We discussed this in the post about the vision of Cal Athletics and its role in Berkeley.  The UC system is currently staggering from the last 10 years of funding cuts:

"Most noticeably, state appropriations declined from about 34% of total revenue in 2002-03 to about 13% in 2012-13. In absolute dollars, state appropriations declined from about $497 million to $290 over the decade, a decline of about 42% in nominal terms or 54% in real terms (i.e., after adjusting for inflation). By contrast, the other three revenue sources have all increased - to the point where each is significantly more important than state funding. Clearly, Berkeley is a not a publicly funded university if one means that the university derives the majority of its funding from the state budget. This has not been the case for many years."

One reason for the problems with academics is this over 50% decrease in state funding from 2002-2013 to 2012-2013.  To say that Cal (or any other public California school) is not prioritizing academics correctly while failing to mention the state's latchkey-kid parenting is to basically abandon any interest in the truth.

If Newsom really wanted to do something to assist the schools in appropriately prioritizing academics, he should spend less time writing Sternly Worded Letters and restore the previous levels of funding, partially or fully.  That may be a big challenge and seem unrealistic, but Newsom has never been one to shy away from challenges.  He tackled the issue of marriage equality years before anybody else and didn't shy away from people who said that would be his political death knell.  He was on the right side of history there and could be on the right side of history again if he can restore the funding for schools.

We should call on all of our elected leaders in Sacramento to work towards restoring previous levels of funding immediately.

Athletic Success Leads To Academic Success

Athletic Self-Sufficiency

There are many people who complain about the Direct Institution Support (i.e. money that Berkeley gives to the Athletic Department to help it balance its budget).  They state that this is part of a poor prioritization of athletics and academics.  Money that could go to academics, going to athletics.  We've gone over this so many times.  We've noted that pretty much every other school out there gives its Athletics Department cold hard cash:

From 2009-10 through 2012-13, there were seven public schools that received no subsidy money in any of those four years: LSU, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Purdue, Texas. All are members of one of the six elite conferences - the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pacific-12 and Southeastern .

Additionally, Cal is like the only school out there interested in lowering the $$$$ it gets:

Just five of the 227 public schools that were in Division I from 2009-10 through 2012-13 have managed to reduce their subsidies for athletics in each of the past three years, a USA TODAY Sports analysis found - Cal, Illinois, Missouri, South Carolina State and Southern Illinois. And Cal was the only one of those five to drop its subsidies by more than $1.2 million during those years.

Don't listen to people who say that Cal isn't appropriately prioritizing athletics and academics due to athletics getting money from the school.  They don't know what they are talking about and lack context.  So, the DIS is decreasing, which is great.  But it gets even better!  Berkeley actually taxes the Department for its activities and so the Department pays money BACK to the school:

First, IA pays the central campus a "tax" on its revenue-generating activities. In IA's case this is significant, about $3 million. While this tax is imposed to cover those central campus expenses that would not otherwise be incurred, marginal costs do not increase in step with marginal revenues. For example, the central campus does not incur additional costs when more merchandise or tickets are sold or when media revenues increase due to a new contract. If one were to credit IA for this revenue reflow back to campus, the net cost of IA to central campus falls to about $2 million.

When you look at most other schools out there, only giving $2 million is a pittance.  For a school with a total budget in the billions, $2 million is budget dust.  Also, that number is shrinking.  In years to come, it may be gone entirely and the Department may be entirely self-sufficient.  If the Department isn't really taking any serious money from the school (or taking any money at all), I think that it has the right to prioritize itself as it sees fit.

Academic Philanthropy

Another aspect here is that, despite whatever everybody tells you, the Athletic Department does significantly more for Berkeley than vice versa.  Read this from Vice Chancellor John Wilton:

Second, while there is no precise way to determine the marginal contribution our IA program makes to academic philanthropy, UREL estimated in 2010 that a significant reduction could lead to losses, in academic philanthropy, of as much as 10% (at that time $25 million) of giving annually for a significant time. The report containing this estimate went on to say: "It is also worth noting that 25 of the top 53 lifetime donors to campus have given substantially to IA, and 22 of these donors have given much more to academics than athletics." According to the donors themselves, their willingness to give is predicated on Berkeley's overall program, both academic and athletic. If one acknowledges this, then it necessarily follows that our IA program generates additional net revenue to support Berkeley's academic mission - even if one takes central campus support fully into account.3

This is a bit hard to read, because of some acronyms, but essentially what it is saying is that the better the sports teams do, the more people are willing to donate to academics.  Half of the major, major, major donors to Berkeley also give substantially to the Department.  Many of them give more to academics than athletics, but say that if athletics were to crumble, their willingness to give is decreased overall.  This makes sense, because athletics can help create a community.  It can bring people together and make them more interested in the school.  The more interested they are, the more likely they are to give money.

If we note above that Athletics is barely suckling at the school's teat, but helps increase donations, it stands to reason that academic success is partially predicated on athletic success.  It is imperative for the school that the athletic teams do well.  This is especially true when we are leaning on philanthropy more than ever, due to the crushing Sacramento budget cuts.

The AD's Job

Newsom's letter about graduation rates wants to tie those rates to termination.  Essentially, if the graduation rates are too low, he wants the AD to be fired.  This is the opposite of how it is now.

"I'm going to be very aggressive on these contracts," Newsom said. "There should be penalties, not just bonuses attached to academic success. We have it backwards right now.

"We incentivize and give bonuses for athletic achievement, but we pay modest lip service to academic achievement -- modest bonuses. The bar is so low."

This single minded focus on academics misses the boat on what the AD's job is, especially at Cal.  The AD's job, in my view, is extremely varied and has many, many roles, outside of promoting academics.  For example, they have to put the best 28 sports teams out there to compete.  They have to help integrate the teams into the community.  They have to make sure that the budgets are as balanced or profitable as possible.  Additionally, for the next 50-100 years, they have to make sure they can pay off $440 million worth of debt incurred to renovate Memorial Stadium.  This last part is unique to Cal and EXTREMELY important.

This is not to say that academics are not important, because they certainly are.  However, they are one part of the larger puzzle.  If we insert "termination" penalties based on academics into the AD's contract, we are hamstringing ourselves with inflexibility.  If we have an AD who is doing a great job with all those other aspects, but the academics is not there, we'd be foolish to jump directly to termination.

This is especially true given the different standards at different schools.  The ESPN article notes:

Fresno State and Sacramento State, which are part of the CSU system, and Cal are all in the process of finding new athletic directors, which is where Newsom believes reform can begin.

The academics at FSU and SacSt are not the same as Cal, the same way that the academics at USC and Stanford are not the same as Cal.  Cal has its own set of challenges academically that many other schools do not.  How do you determine what the appropriate standard is for the UC or CSU system as a whole?  Do you have a separate standard for Cal?  Many Cal fans would be fine with mediocre academics given the academic challenges at Cal.  It was just the DEAD LAST position we found ourselves in that was so odious.


Good luck to Newsom in his re-election bid.  He'll probably win, because I can't name his opponent.  He's using the old standby "school care about sports too much" to demagogue an issue that's frankly really easy to demagogue on.  It's truthiness to say that schools care too much about sports and don't prioritize academics at all.

However, it's an extremely complex situation with a variety of factors.  Newsom would be better off to roll up his sleeves and hustle up more money for the California public schools in Sacramento rather than writing Sternly Worded Letters that would end up in the circular file were it not for the popularity of college football.  Then again, he wouldn't have even written this Sternly Worded Letter were it not for the popularity of college football.

What are your thoughts?  Should we include termination punishments in contracts for Athletic Directors based on academics?  Leave your thoughts in the comments and GO BEARS!