‘Out of control’ salaries?

Some academics have always bristled at the money and attention lavished on college sports. But watching major universities pour tens of millions of dollars into coaching salaries while cutting core education has been too much for University of Nevada, Reno President Milton Glick to bear.

“You have to keep costs in perspective. This arms race in intercollegiate athletics is out of control,” Mr. Glick said, singling out the eight-year, $32 million contract given by the University of Kentucky to its new men’s basketball coach, John Calipari, as an example. “I think something needs to be done. I think it will destroy itself if these costs keep escalating.”

So Mr. Glick has made it clear that his school’s intercollegiate sports programs will share the pain he is being forced to inflict on the rest of the institution.

“Athletic programs are valuable and important, but not as valuable as getting students a quality education,” he said. “I couldn’t in clear conscience face students, faculty and staff if I left athletics alone and cut the core out of everything else.”

Nevada’s public institutions face tens of millions of dollars in general fund reductions unless the Legislature votes to significantly raise taxes. Mr. Glick has proposed restructuring coaching contracts, reducing some sports scholarships and possibly eliminating teams to balance his budget if those new revenues do not materialize.

Certainly, if the Reno area and UNR alumni do not provide enough financial support to Wolf Pack teams to make the athletics department self-sustaining, Mr. Glick must consider targeted budget reductions.

But while we’re on the topic of self-destruction through escalating costs, Mr. Glick and other Nevada campus leaders should look in the mirror. Nevada’s higher education system, under the direction of the elected Board of Regents, has been on a decade-long spending spree that would make Mike Tyson and Bernie Madoff blush.

In 2001, UNR President John Lilley had an annual salary of $199,000 per year and UNLV President Carol Harter was paid $201,000. Today, Mr. Glick and current UNLV President David Ashley each make $416,424 per year. Those figures don’t include generous hosting, housing and automobile allowances, among other benefits.

Before the recession struck, the system made dozens of administration and faculty hires “above salary schedule,” meaning schools went well above what was considered market value to attract specific deans and research-focused professors. Many professors’ salaries now approach or top $200,000.

The case was made that these employees, like every campus president hired over the past 10 years, were simply too talented to be allowed to go elsewhere, and that they would bring colleges and universities immediate returns that would more than compensate for their generous salaries.

So why should that argument not apply to intercollegiate athletics, where spending big money on one men’s basketball or football coach can boost season ticket sales and donations to the point that they pay for every other men’s and women’s sport? Unlike tenured professors, college coaches can be fired.

UNR, a member of the mid-major Western Athletic Conference, will never be able to pay the kind of coaching salaries that are seen in the Southeastern Conference, the Big 12, the Big 10 and the Pacific 10. Mark Fox was UNR’s highest-paid coach, at about $546,000 per year, until he left this year to become the University of Georgia’s men’s basketball coach. UNLV men’s basketball coach Lon Kruger, by comparison, earns more than $1 million per year in total compensation, and UNLV football coach Mike Sanford has an annual salary of $413,000.

Higher education officials should examine every possible way to reduce taxpayers’ costs. Those decisions should include a look at intercollegiate athletics spending.

But it’s not the salaries of a couple of coaches that got Nevada’s universities and colleges into their current budget mess, and inflated coaching compensation poses no long-term threat to their fiscal stability. The blame can be pinned on the free spending on hundreds upon hundreds of nonteaching academic salaries without regard to whether those costs would be sustainable.

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