Press Statement: July 21, 2020
Rutgers AAUP-AFT Asks Why Administration Shifted $100 Million to Athletics Program in Just One Year
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Rutgers AAUP-AFT has filed a lawsuit to force the Rutgers University administration to come clean about the huge sums of money it funnels to an athletics program that continually loses money. The suit, filed last Friday, asks a superior court judge to require the university to honor Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests for in-depth financial data that could explain what union leaders call an “alarming” drain on the core missions of the state university.
The scant information that the university has revealed shows an ongoing annual subsidy to Rutgers Athletics, generated in part from mandatory student fees, that has ranged between $20 million and $40 million for close to a decade—and, on top of that, a whopping $76 million increase this past year in what the university mysteriously categorizes as the athletic program’s “internal debt.”
“The amounts are just staggering,” said Andrew Goldstone, an associate professor of English and chair of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT University Budget and Priorities Committee. “We’ve known for years about the subsidy to athletics that comes out of student fees and general appropriations from the university. That makes less and less sense in the era of COVID, when the athletics program will have an even harder time getting to the break-even point.
“But then there’s this loan book, which they call ‘internal debt,’ that ballooned from $45.4 million to $121.5 million in a single year. And the university refuses to release any information about it: where the money came from, whether there’s an interest rate, when it will be repaid, if it will ever be repaid, and, above all, what on earth they’re spending $76 million on.”
Goldstone said the union’s detailed requests for records were crafted to meet the requirements of OPRA, the state-level equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act. But the university found bogus reasons to deny nearly all of them, he said—it claimed, for example, that it didn’t have to reveal the financial data that backs up its reports to the NCAA or the information furnished to a consulting firm hired in 2018 to report on athletics. “Rutgers is a public university,” Goldstone said. “It shouldn’t be fighting OPRA requests to keep information secret. This suit is about a basic principle of openness in public university governance.”
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last spring and the economic crisis that followed, Rutgers has laid off a fifth of its adjunct faculty for the fall semester, along with hundreds more staff; threatened other unions with worse if they don’t accept furloughs that amount to a wage cut; and declared a “fiscal emergency” as the justification for canceling or freezing salary increases won in recent union contracts.
“And meanwhile, they were keeping quiet about this alarming drain on resources,” said Todd Wolfson, president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, which represents 5,000 full-time faculty and graduate workers. “Rutgers Athletics has been a financial black hole for a long time, but in the past year, the university transferred more than $100 million in all to the athletic program, and they don’t want to say why or where the money came from. It’s time to come clean so people can decide if the steep price for athletics is worth paying.”
Goldstone said that a public-relations campaign about building up Rutgers football and other sports into a big-name program has hidden how the administration uses student fees and its own internal funds to prop up athletics, even while it undermines the university’s core mission of learning, research, and serving the communities of New Jersey.
“People haven’t been given the whole story about the tradeoff there,” Goldstone said. “Okay, you have athletics, but the price you pay is bigger classes when the university lays off part-time instructors. The price is graduate workers forced to live on less than a living wage—and staff throughout the university asked to do more for less so the administration can cover the shortfall of Rutgers Athletics.
“If people had a chance to reflect on that tradeoff, maybe they’d say: I want a sports program, but not at the cost of having a public university that’s much less than it should be. I don’t want tuition and fees being taken away from learning to cover the costs of an athletics program that’s going to lose money for the foreseeable future.”
Soili Smith, a PhD candidate in American Studies and graduate worker at Rutgers’ Newark campus, questions what the student fee for athletic facilities goes to considering that the gym at Newark is often in disrepair, including extended periods without working hot water. Smith, a collegiate athlete who played basketball at the University of Northern British Columbia, said going to three women’s basketball games at New Brunswick would have cost $120, “so it’s not like Newark students are getting free tickets to Division I games for that fee.”
“When the university spends money on things that should be priorities, like the recent $5 million initiative to help food-insecure students, they do it with a lot of fanfare,” said Smith. “But they always forget to mention that a total of $12 million from student fees gets taken away for Rutgers Athletics.”
The athletic program has run a deficit for decades, but the red ink really started flowing during the administration of recently departed President Robert Barchi. Barchi even acknowledged when he first took office that athletics was “siphoning dollars” from academic programs.
“He never said anything like that ever again,” according to Wolfson. “But it’s true: Rutgers Athletics, and particularly football, doesn’t get the donations or ticket sales or media revenue it needs, so the project has been constantly subsidized to the tune of tens of millions of dollars annually.”
Last year, Rutgers doubled down on its investment in athletics by signing new head football coach Greg Schiano to a staggering eight-year, $4 million-a-year contract—$1 million per year more than he was paid to coach in the NFL for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The university also promised to pay for half of an ambitious $150 million plan from Schiano for a brand new indoor practice facility and football command center. Schiano had a losing record (11–21) with the Buccaneers and broke .500 (68–67) during his 2001–11 run at Rutgers.
“Some people still believe that this program will turn a profit the way most other Big Ten athletic programs do,” Goldstone said. “A school like Michigan brings in much more in ticket sales and TV revenue and gifts than its athletics program costs to run. But the experience at Rutgers is the opposite: the goal is so far away that it never gets met. The ‘someday’ when they’ve promised Rutgers Athletics will break even might as well be ‘never.’”
Meanwhile, the damaging cuts and austerity imposed on staff and faculty during the Barchi administration went into overdrive after the pandemic hit. The administration rejected a people-centered approach to the crisis developed by Rutgers’ 19 unions in favor of layoffs and cutbacks. Last month, the administration announced to unions that it was declaring a “fiscal emergency” as a first step toward breaking union contracts and canceling or freezing raises due July 1 for faculty, grad workers, and staff. The administration’s claims are going to arbitration.
“It would cost about $4 million to pay for all adjunct faculty let go by Rutgers to teach their regular courses this fall,” said Wolfson, “and meanwhile, the football coach is supposed to get that much in his first year. The pay freeze for grad workers, who aren’t even getting a living wage, would save at most $1.1 million, which would barely be noticed in the athletics budget. We calculate the total cost of contractual raises for all Rutgers union members at just under $40 million—which is less than half the money the university funneled to sports in one year.”
“I have no ax to grind about football,” said Wolfson, who was a collegiate athlete himself. “But after this many years and this much money, you can’t reach any other conclusion: Rutgers Athletics has been picking our pockets and the pockets of our students and their parents. It has to stop.”