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April 18, 2011 - Program-specific donations at California may alter funding practices

USA Today reported on the full reinstatement of four sports at the University of California at Berkeley (UC) after fans and alumni raised enough money to save them. Last September, UC announced it would discontinue baseball, men's and women's gymnastics and women's lacrosse and drop rugby from varsity to club status. A little more than six months — and about $18 million in donations — later, all but men's gymnastics have been continued with 7 to 10 years of funding in place and permanent financing plans in the works.

Many NCAA Division I athletics programs rely heavily on institutional funding sources, as well as student fees, at a time when appropriations to schools are being cut by state legislatures. Because of cuts in state funding and controversy on the UC campus about the amount of institutional funding the athletics program was receiving, two task forces — one from the faculty senate, the other from the chancellor's office — scrutinized the athletics department in 2010. Those probes resulted in what UC vice chancellor Frank Yeary called "better transparency and financial discipline" in athletics.

At UC, it was decided to reduce campus support of athletics from $12.1 million in 2009-10 to no more than $5 million per year by 2014. To help achieve that goal, the school decided it would drop baseball, men's and women's gymnastics and women's lacrosse and it would make men's rugby what it called a "varsity club" sport.

During the 2008-09 fiscal year, UC's annual athletics giving totaled $15.6 million, and in 2009-10, that figure fell to $10.2 million, according to financial reports the school filed with the NCAA. Additionally, the UC was also raising money for the refurbishment and seismic retrofitting of its football stadium and the construction of an athletic training complex.

However, benefactors of women's gymnastics, women's lacrosse, baseball and rugby came through with money that Yeary says he expects to soon reach $20 million. UC has committed to keeping the sports while waiting to see whether men's gymnastics backers can finish marshaling the $4 million the school now says they need to restore that sport.

"I think that one of the lessons we have learned," Yeary says, "is that transparency … and education with the community about the realities of the true cost of each of the individual programs does generate a level of support from the individual sports communities that maybe we haven't seen before — and that may be true elsewhere" around the nation.

But Amy Perko, executive director of the reform-minded Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, says that while donor efforts to keep teams are "obviously a win for the athletes," the need for such extraordinary measures reflect systematic problems in athletics financing "that will not be solved by individual fundraising campaigns."

"Every school is different in its ability to generate the sums of revenue needed," she says. "This doesn't take aim at some national policy issues that need to be addressed and would be best for the financial health of all schools."

Jeff Orleans, former executive director of the Ivy League, stated schools have to weigh a variety of factors when deciding to field teams on those terms. Among them is determining what really is the appropriate size for their athletics program and "being careful about how much you rely on donated, alumni money — whether it's raised in advance of when you need it, or raised only when your back is to the wall — because at some point you give up control over your program if it's entirely beholden to donors," said Orleans.