Sobering news about universities

The state of Minnesota universities in the pandemic is not exactly optimistic. The Star Trib summarizes our financial situation.

The University of Minnesota has frozen tuition for the next academic year in hopes of attracting a large freshman class during the pandemic. As of last week, fall freshman enrollment was trending nearly 10% behind where it was this time last year.

The Minnesota State colleges and universities system took a $17 million hit from room-and-board refunds and could lose up to $13 million more this spring from canceled events, summer camps, travel and trainings.

The University of St. Thomas, Minnesota’s largest private college, has already lost $8 million and won’t get to replenish with revenue from marquee events such as the Special Olympics.

Public and private institutions are mapping out sobering scenarios that foretell steep revenue and enrollment losses. They are planning for a fall semester that might look anything but normal; some colleges envision a mix of online and in-person instruction, while others may delay the start of the semester until students can enjoy a traditional campus experience.

Yeah, that’s our situation — we’ve been asked to map out how we would manage online instruction for the fall. I’m not a fan of the idea of delaying the start of classes until the pandemic recedes, since that implies that we can accurately predict when things will be back to normal. If I had to make a prediction, it’s that we should be OK for the fall, except that, as we’re seeing right now, at the first sign of a decrease in infections our selfish, mindless populace, goaded by idiot Republicans, will stampede to opportunities to suck faces with their fellow damfools, undoing any gains and blowing all predictions to smithereens, making it impossible to know when the situation will actually improve. So I have no idea what we’ll be doing at the start of the school year. The administration will make some preliminary decisions in June, which I’m sure they’ll revise in July, and then update in August.

At least there’s some cautious optimism about the future of the University of Minnesota.

The University of Minnesota took an immediate loss of nearly $35 million when it issued room-and-board refunds to students who had to move off campus. Early projections show the U could lose up to $315 million in revenue if the pandemic lasts into fall.

President Joan Gabel and members of her cabinet have taken a voluntary 10% pay cut, and hiring and salary increases have been frozen.

Minnesota’s land-grant institution should be able to withstand even the worst hit, thanks to deep reserves, a strong credit rating and manageable debt levels.

“We have some ability to make decisions that can help us work into a new reality,” said Brian Burnett, the U’s senior vice president for finance and operations.

I’m glad the administration has taken a voluntary pay cut, since they were just asking us faculty to take one. I could reluctantly accept a 10% cut — I also voluntarily took a 50% pay cut the year before last, to indulge in a sabbatical, and there was some savage belt-tightening around the Myers household that we’re still trying to recover from, so it’s going to hurt, but we have to face this New Reality where we’re all going to be hurting.

I do still have to worry a bit about how the UM will deal with their losses — one approach they could take would be to contract down a bit, starving their branch campuses (like mine!) to save the Twin Cities core. That seems unwise to me — centralizing during a pandemic seems risky, especially when their far-flung branch campuses (like mine!) are a kind of social distancing already, and when some of our lightly populated rural counties have fairly low rates of infection. There have been zero reported cases of coronavirus in Stevens county so far, although I suspect part of the reason for the low number is the lack of testing.

If I had to suggest a place to cut, top of my list would be…football. I was dumbfounded that one of our Minnesota sports writers, Patrick Reusse, suggested the same thing — that UM should hit football hard.

This is a university that exists through the residents of Minnesota. Those residents are men and women, football families and gymnastics families. There’s an obligation to continue to present valid sports opportunities for a wide spectrum of students.

It’s absurd FBS teams can offer 85 scholarships — with another 25 walk-ons for Power Five programs. That scholarship number should be 70 (or fewer), and with 90 bodies total.

It’s absurd P.J. Fleck came here making $1 million (with incentives) and, in his fourth season, he will be kicking off a new contract at $4.6 million.

Also absurd: The ever-growing football support staff; a $170 million athletic facility devoted largely to football, and a drain to the university’s more vital fundraising; and colleges footing the bill as the developmental arm of the NFL, the most profitable sports league in U.S. history.

The first post-virus gouge in athletic budgets should come in football — at Minnesota, and across the Power Five landscape.

I fully agree with that first paragraph. We should encourage college sports, they’re important to a lot of our students, and part of a liberal arts education is to promote a healthy body and mind. Football, however, has become a bloated cancer on higher education with gross inflation of its budgets.

The University of Minnesota head football coach is paid $3.6 million per year, which is insane. And it’s going up to $4.6 million next year! That one guy is getting the salary of 60 professors at my university. He does not have 60 times the intelligence or education of your average professor, nor is he working 60 times as hard.

We’re also paying a massive army of assistant coaches. That $170 million facility is called the “athletes village”, with weight rooms, indoor practice field, sound-proofed basketball courts, a cafeteria just for athletes, and their own medical facility. We have a stadium, capitalistically named the TCF Bank Stadium, that cost $300 million to build. I don’t think TCF Bank paid for it. I know our students were levied a $50 per student per semester fee to help cover it.

Maybe the pandemic will compel the universities to rethink the frivolities they’ve been throwing cash at for decades.


  1. says

    The massive amounts of money that American universities sink into the football abyss was always a mystery to me. How did that trend even start, for crying out loud? Universities’ main purposes are research and education, not playing whateverball.

    A university coach having a salary 60 times higher than a tenured professor at said university, that is truly absurd to the highest degree.

    Just like with US military budget, one can only imagine what good in the world could be done with this much money being spent elsewhere. For example, I have looked at the current yearly budget of my former alma mater- it is roughly 100 million dollars!

  2. raven says

    The year 2020 is going to be a lost year for almost everyone.

    The hospitals are having financial problems as well.
    They canceled all non-emergency services to prepare for the Covid-19 pandemic.
    There went an important source of revenue.
    They have had to lay off people since then.

    Around 11% of all reported Covid-19 cases are among health care workers.
    Some of those have died.
    For some people, the year 2020 is a lot more than a lost year.

  3. Bruce says

    The U of Minn should pioneer a new college football sport, with social distancing. Each player in uniform should wear the same kind of plastic bubble they already make for kids. Their body from waist to neck is in a big clear soft airbag, with a 3 foot radius, so six feet distancing. Tackles don’t involve arms, as those are pinned inside their bag. I guess we could let quarterbacks and receivers have their arms free. But any collisions end up with the students bouncing and rolling on the field. This would also reduce brain traumas.
    As this is no longer NFL prep, they don’t need a coaching staff that makes any more than does a Teaching Assistant in any other department. The head coach should make $50-$60,000 per year, for example. After all, anyone could coach students how to bounce in bubble wrap with the same expertise as anyone else, as it’s new in college sports.
    Would there be TV revenue if the only college sports available were this, plus Taiwan baseball? I think so. So do it. It is as academically useful as the trauma version.

  4. Becky Smith says

    “ A fiscal year 2020 budget of $153,891,331 was approved Friday by the University of Georgia Athletic Association Board of Directors during day two of its annual spring meeting. The budget figure of 153.9 million represents an increase of over seven percent from the 2019 fiscal year.” May 24, 2019

    Kirby Smart’s salary is $6.43 million.

    Football is a religion here in Georgia. And…per our Governor, we’re open for business. Hahaha!

  5. says

    The University of Minnesota head football coach is paid $3.6 million per year, which is insane. And it’s going up to $4.6 million next year!

    That’s a 10% cut, right?

  6. says

    I’m always annoyed by projections that revenues have dropped, therefore belt-tightening below the C suite… without considering that some nonfixed expenditures will drop, too.

    Maybe the U of M is going to do the right thing and continue to pay its hourly workers in the residence halls. Maybe.

    But utility costs (power, water, sewage) will be less. Expendables, ranging from filters to paper towels to handsoap to floor wax, will be less. The effort and expense necessary to ensure that maintenance can be done without disrupting residents will be less (and believe me, this is nontrivial and runs 10% or more of maintenance costs on an occupied residential facility, if only because one ends up paying a premium for restricted schedules). Further, things will break less often; just consider the reduced wear on plumbing fixtures!

    So gross revenue is actively misleading. But that’s primarily because the U of M doesn’t want to admit that its revenues for housing — when honestly and accurately accounted on a fully-extended basis — probably exceed its costs. Not by $35 million in refunds, but almost certainly by a seven-figure amount that is buried via accounting games. Which would probably be enough to pay most or all of the hourly-wage stage being laid off/furloughed.

    And none of which excuses a damned thing about the athletics department… most especially including the purported “cost” of the scholarships. Hint: It’s not a “cost” if, in the absence of the bookkeeping-only charge for a “tuition waiver,” you wouldn’t have incurred it because that student wouldn’t have either attended or paid tuition.

  7. schweinhundt says

    I went to a state university with a perennially bad lower-tier football team and, yet, the head coach slot was STILL the highest payed position on campus. I have never grasped the logic of that.

  8. Snarki, child of Loki says

    Clearly, college athletics should be re-oriented towards sports where one keeps a distance between participants, and face-masks are mandatory.

    Like fencing

  9. garnetstar says

    I wholly agree with belt-tightening in college sports: that is a money-sink to be sure.
    My recommendation for my university is also that they cut back savagely on, perhaps permanently delete, the inflated administration, principally the deanlets, as they’re known. We have “deans” and Offices of this, that, and the other, every silly thing you can think of, Dean of Happy Faces and Office Decor, most of them quite unrelated to learning. We could easily operate well without most of them, even permanently.

    For this coming fall, or even spring, I recommend suspending those offices, furloughing the deanlets or having them have salary cuts, and only phasing back in those that actually have value.

  10. whheydt says

    If the university I went to had suggested a $50 per year fee for building a sport complex, I think there would have been mass demonstrations against it. Of course, it was Berkeley in the ’60s… The ongoing joke was that Cal would have a great football team…as soon as someone figured out how to put cleats on sandals…

  11. says

    @#1, Charley:

    How did that trend even start, for crying out loud?

    I don’t know, but it’s been going on for a long time. I’m re-watching the Marx Brothers movies right now, and Horse Feathers is centered on the idea that football is as important to a college as academics — Zeppo comes out and says it in the first 15 minutes of the movie, and the assertion is unchallenged — and it was made in 1932. I think Robert Benchley was mocking the whole thing even earlier than that.

    I sort of think that the idea is that a sports program gets alumni involved in the ongoing affairs of the institution, and the hope is that they’ll donate money in passing, even if most of it goes to the sports program. Sort of a specialized trickle-down economics, and it works about as well as the more general one. I remember seeing the statistics on it a while back, and although there are schools where the athletics programs turn a profit, those are in the minority (it came close to an even fraction like ⅓ or ¼) and the profits are more than offset by the fact that all the other schools are making losses to support their own programs, and the overall losses sum up to more than the overall profits. You could literally eliminate all the programs and just have the schools which were making a loss pay an annual fee to the other schools and it would end up costing less to education in general.

  12. flange says

    When you factor in athletic “scholarships,” coaches salaries, travel expenses, mechanical expenses, I doubt that college sports are profit centers. I’ve always thought that college competitive team sports, especially football and basketball sucked money and the soul out of education.
    Was there ever a better time to rid ourselves of this insatiable parasite?

  13. schweinhundt says

    @11, Vicar: While I have not personally crunched the numbers, your figures sound on par with what I would suspect to find.
    @12, flange: I agree with PZ that sports programs have a place in universities. Just don’t think they should get an oversized portion of the budget. My school newspaper, while supported by the university in various ways, was largely self-financed. The business school was probably the largest recipient of targeted donations. And, I suspect profits from theatre department productions at least rivaled those from the football games. Basically, I don’t see why universities should be showering huge sums of money on programs that do not pull their relative weight…

  14. jrkrideau says

    One of the things that has always amazed me is that professional sports, football and basketball in particular, in the USA had managed to con educational system into doing all its training.

    In hockey if you’re trying for the NHL, typically the route has been through junior hockey leagues and on into various farm teams and so on up to the NHL. In contrast the NFL has no training cost at all.

    I have no objection to sports on campus and even a modest bit of University financial support but the insane levels that one sees at university levels in the US is crazy.

    I do like the idea of making fencing a premier university sport. I can just see the two figures down in the middle of the pitch with thousands of screaming fans, at the proper physical distance of course, in the stands. It could be a expensive proposition since you would have to pay those fans a lot to go but I’m sure it would have do wonders for school spirit.

  15. Elladan says

    I’ve never understood this argument that universities should encourage, or even have, sports programs, at all.

    What does a sports program do to help me, a [former] student, in any way? I can watch jocks give each other brain damage on TV, for free. I can watch it in person by just taking a bus to certain parts of town and watching for fights.

    Is there a class I can take which is enabled by the existence of the sportsball teams? No.
    Can I use their facilities for my own enjoyment, get some friends and go play on that multi-million dollar sportsball palace? No.
    Does sportsball mean there’s a gym I can use? No.
    Does paying the football coach millions of dollars (and assistants / staff more millions) to manage a circus and TV event built on top of unpaid student labor somehow enrich the academics, funding, or facilities in any way? Big fat no.

    There is no benefit at all to having these programs. They do not help the student body in general. They (at best) act as an unpaid internship program for professional gladiatorial circus companies that a tiny number of students participate in, run entirely at university expense.

    When it operates vocational / internship training programs for other (more useful) industries, universities expect the companies involved to provide the internships and ideally actually pay student staff. The whole college athletics system is an utterly worthless and pathetic joke which should not exist.

    What would an actually worthwhile athletics program look like? It would just be an expanded gym. Want to do some rowing, or fencing? We have drop in classes! Everyone is welcome! That’s it. That’s all it would be.

  16. vucodlak says

    @ Charly, #1

    Perhaps the most important thing US schools teach is competition. Students start competing with each other in kindergarten or even preschool via “harmless” little games, and they keep competing all throughout their time in school. By the time they’re applying for college, they’re competing just to get into a “good” (read: full of wealthy and/or connected people) school.

    This is not because competition is the best way to accomplish things as a people- it demonstrably isn’t- but because the vicious capitalism we’ve built our society around requires people to be as selfish as possible. So it’s vital that schools foster a winner-take-all attitude in every way possible, otherwise children might grow up with the idea that we’d be better off if everybody had a decent standard of living, which would require the rich to be a little less rich in comparison to the rest of us. The rich could still be obscenely, unfathomably wealthy but if there aren’t millions scrounging out a meager existence in the gutter, then what’s the point?

    Indoctrination into capitalism is the primary point of public education in the United States of America. Once you understand that, pretty much every seemingly nonsensical decision schools and universities make makes perfect sense. Fetishizing a culture of ruthless competitiveness in service of wealth and privilege is the raison d’etre of our entire educational system. There’s nothing absurd about universities valuing sports more than science or math or the humanities, because everything in this country exists to serve wealth and those who have it. It’s foolish, short-sighted, and pure fucking evil, sure, but not absurd.

  17. vereverum says

    This probably should be on a much older post but You were talking about salaries being cut but not administration..
    OU Medicine has announced they are cutting salaries by 10-15%; senior executives and CEO 20-25%.

  18. publicola says

    At the very least, I think athletic scholarships should be banned. That money could be redirected to minority need scholarships. Then eliminate interscholastic leagues. Put emphasis on intra-mural sports/clubs. Finally, use the money saved to create new faculty positions and higher pay for staff and faculty, plus more money for needed equipment and infrastructure. Pie-in-the-sky? Sure, but wouldn’t it be nice…

  19. Guenter says

    Higher Education has been on the edge of crisis for years, and this is going to push us over the edge. I don’t know how it will all shake out, but the smaller private schools that are completely tuition dependent are going to be in trouble, I think many will close. Will the small university I work at become more of a professional school since 30% of our credit hours taught are in Business? Will we become more of a niche school since more than 50% of our students are minority or first generation college students? Will a school that’s been in Minnesota for 150 years close completely? I don’t know.
    Interestingly, our enrollment for Fall is slightly larger than last year, and that was the largest class we ever admitted.