UT Athletic Dividend Increase

The university's athletic department commits to more academic support

It's heartening to see how the University of Tennessee's still-thriving athletic enterprise is coming to the aid of the university's academic mission that's been imperiled by impending funding cuts.

The athletic department's $1 million additional annual contribution to UT-Knoxville that was announced last week will go primarily to fund 40 graduate student-teaching assistantships. Supporting UT's instructional capacity is exactly where new money is most needed in relation to the deep budget cuts for which UT had been bracing this year (but was spared until 2011 by federal stimulus funding). The $1 million commitment runs for 15 years tied to the term of lucrative new football and basketball television contracts with CBS and ESPN.

To be sure, $1 million is small in relation to the $21 million cut the Knoxville campus is facing in 2011 unless state revenues make a far more robust recovery from their steep recessionary decline than is anticipated between now and then. And 40 graduate student teaching assistantships are only a fraction of some 1,200 TA positions, as they are known, that presently bolster UT's teaching ranks but are in jeopardy.

However, another recent agreement between the university and the athletic department will yield an additional $2.7 million a year in discretionary academic funding starting in 2010. Under this agreement, the department will collect in a new Tennessee Fund all contributions made by donors as a condition for getting preferred seating and parking for UT athletics. Up to now, donors could get these privileges by making contributions to academic programs of their choice. But once the Tennessee Fund is established, the department will allocate all such contributions to UT's campuses with no strings attached.

This change will no doubt be unpopular with many donors who have grown accustomed to getting these perks for gifts to pet programs or to things like scholarship funds that bear their names. Some of these programs may suffer as a result, and there's also a risk that donations to the university could dwindle.

However, in these troubled times it's clear to me that the well-being of the university is better served by allowing campus administrators to apply these funds to their top priorities. While no allocations have been made as yet, Chancellor Jimmy Cheek is loud and clear that enhancing UT's instructional capacity is uppermost.

Unfortunately, preserving it would appear to be the more apt word in the near term. In addition to the aforementioned 1,200 TA's, the Knoxville campus also relies heavily on some 250 non-tenured lecturers to complement its 920 tenured and tenure-track professors. Since the latter can't be terminated, the brunt of any budget cuts could well fall upon the former. And depletion of their ranks could impair the university's ability to offer its 20,000 undergraduates all the courses that they need to get their diplomas in a timely way. Again, allocations from an athletic department fund is only a small part of the solution to a big problem, but a much-needed one.

Those who think the athletic department, with its $87 million budget, is some kind of fat cat or a sacred cow should bear in mind that UT is one of only a handful of universities at which athletics makes a financial contribution to academia. Indeed, at the vast majority, the flow of funds is in the opposite direction.

In addition to the million-dollar new commitment and the $2.75 million to be derived from the Tennessee Fund, Athletic Director Mike Hamilton also claims more than $7 million a year in other contributions to the university proper. Of these, only $1.375 million for academic scholarships goes for purely academic purposes, and some of the others seem a bit of a stretch. They include $1.45 million to cover Thompson-Boling Arena's operating deficit, $1.125 million for debt service on five university parking garages, and $1 million for game-day staffing and clean-up of garages.

On the other hand, Hamilton's list doesn't include an average of about $1.5 million a year in licensing fees on the sale of Vols merchandise and memorabilia that goes to the university. As with the payments for preferred season tickets, UT is one of very few universities where such licensing fees don't go exclusively to support its athletic program.

Taken as a whole, the athletic department is, in fact, the university's biggest benefactor on a year-in, year-out basis. And Hamilton deserves a lot of credit for his stewardship in sustaining that role amid a slumping economy, escalation of coaches' salaries, and extraordinary expenses such as the $6 million buyout of former football coach Phillip Fulmer's contract.