EWU declines faculty request for independent review of athletics budget

click to enlarge David Syphers, associate professor of physics at EWU, presents a report on athletics spending to the Board of Trustees on Thursday - WILSON CRISCIONE PHOTO
Wilson Criscione photo
David Syphers, associate professor of physics at EWU, presents a report on athletics spending to the Board of Trustees on Thursday

This story was updated Friday to include a statement from the EWU Board of Trustees and President. The headline has also been changed.

Before an associate physics professor could begin his presentation Thursday that questioned the amount of money put towards athletics, Vicki Wilson, chair of the Eastern Washington University Board of Trustees, had something to say.

"The Board of Trustees did not request this report," Wilson said. "But out of respect for the faculty organization, we are hearing you."

The notion of cutting athletics spending at EWU elicited a strong reaction among the community when the Inlander first outlined a faculty report weeks ago that presented various models of doing so, up to cutting the entire athletics department. But when professor David Syphers asked Thursday if the board had any questions on his presentation that touched on similar points, there was only silence from the board.

Syphers' presentation in the packed room lasted roughly 15 minutes and it ended with a call for the Board of Trustees to have an outside expert in sports management or sports economics to review athletics spending at EWU.

"They can come in and give you a thorough analysis of this," Syphers said. "We need them to make recommendations that we'll take seriously."

Today, however, the Board of Trustees said it would not conduct an independent review.

"At this time, President [Mary] Cullinan and the Board of Trustees will not be moving forward with an independent review of EWU Athletics," they wrote in a statement. "We believe the athletics organization is moving forward in a positive way with their budget alignment and plan the BOT approved two years ago, and we believe under Lynn Hickey's leadership it will continue to do so."

The university has been dealing with dwindling enrollment and budget cuts across departments in recent years. It's led some faculty members to examine the athletics budget, which costs EWU $12 to 14 million per year, according to the report. And the institutional support of athletics, Syphers said Thursday, is growing at 6.4 percent a year, even though they say athletic success at EWU has no correlation with enrollment.

Despite the faculty suggesting a variety of models to cut athletics spending, EWU has maintained that it does not have any plans to eliminate the athletic department or switch out of Division I in the NCAA.

Syphers compared EWU to peer institutions like Western Washington University and Central Washington University. EWU spends "far more" than both universities, the report says, but it doesn't correlate with higher enrollment. And Syphers noted that Western eliminated football in 2009, which also had no impact on enrollment. In his presentation, Syphers responded to the idea presented by Athletic Director Lynn Hickey that athletics can be a "front porch" attracting people to the university.

"If it's a front porch, it's not a front porch very many people are coming into," Syphers said.

He added that while EWU should care about its student-athletes, they represent only three percent of the population.

"If you're talking to one student-athlete about this issue, you need to talk to 30 students who are not athletes to get a representative sample," Syphers said.

Athletics funding is an issue that's facing every institution in the country, Syphers said. He said if EWU is looking to do budget cuts, athletics shouldn't be exempt from that examination. He acknowledged, however, that he and other faculty members who prepared the report are not experts in athletics.

"I am an expert in data analysis but I'm not an expert in athletics. We did have an economist on our committee as well, but he also was not an expert in athletics," Syphers said.

That's why he argued for an outside analysis. The faculty report, he said, was only to give information to "get this conversation going."

"And I hope we've succeeded there," he said.