Is UF too much ado about football and partying?


Published: Saturday, September 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 31, 2007 at 10:34 p.m.

I was naive to think that unparalleled sports success would translate into good academics.

Last year, I came to teach at the University of Florida from a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. At the time, I imagined that the Gator Nation would be rich in academic resources.

Maybe I was in the wrong corner of this massive institution, but I found the classes were bulging and the faculty so caught up with snagging grants to keep their departments financially afloat that I heard nary a word from any administrators about students or the joys of teaching.

I am headed back to the tundra, but looking in the rear-view mirror I must have been extremely naive to think that unparalleled sports success would translate into economically healthy academics.

This year the University of Florida Athletic Association enjoyed a cash flow of about $81 million. Given these numbers and the storied three national championships, you would expect scholars at the University of Florida to be sitting pretty in their wainscoted studies; sitting pretty and thinking with gratitude about their football and basketball teams.

Not exactly.

Applications are up, and the school has a strong academic reputation, but it's at risk. In a piece of news that cuts both ways, Newsweek has just named the University of Florida as the hottest college for sports fans, a small sign of what's going on in Gainesville.

The Gator Nation is like a Third World country with the sports in clover and their academic programs in the weeds. Almost doubling their salaries of last year, the big three - Urban Meyer (football coach) Billy Donovan, (basketball coach) and Jeremy Foley (athletic director) - will together average earnings of $7.75-million per year. According to the Gainesville Sun, assistant football coaches received almost a half-million dollars in raises.

There is more to life than money, but it is worth noting that while a full professor in the humanities may be in the $80,000 to $90,000 range, the coach for Gator tight ends takes down $140,000 a year, the offensive and defensive coordinators, $290,000. Adjunct faculty might make a measly $4,000 per course.

The Athletic Association has already raised $20 million toward the projected $28 million bill for cosmetic changes and renovations of the Griffin stadium complex, including the building of a Gator Hall of Fame, office renovations for coaches, improved weightlifting facilities, etc.

At the same time, it may as well be 1929 for the academic programs. Because of budget shortfalls, President Bernie Machen has instituted hiring and salary freezes at the university. As a result of the crunch, classes are packed and fewer courses are offered.

This is especially troubling since, because of the sun and sports and the free tuition of Bright Futures scholarships, the university attracts students with real intellectual muscle. The average Gator freshman had a 3.99 GPA in high school. And the average SAT scores were above 1,300.

You can tell a lot about a person by what makes them blush. The same holds for institutions. A football booster recently groaned that it was embarrassing to have to meet recruits in the air-conditioned tent that they have been using. (Now, of course, a new meeting room is under construction.)

Last year, money was so tight where I taught, the Department of Tourism, Recreation and Sport Management, that faculty members were asked to pay for their own meals when attending a luncheon with a job candidate.

However, the so-called Bull Gators are unabashed by the fact that among state-supported institutions, the University of Florida has the second worst professor-to-student ratio. Nor do the football fundamentalists seem overly troubled by the budget cuts that have sliced some department operating budgets to zero.

You could argue that we have our priorities wrong, with bread and circuses first and books much later. Indeed, this summer a proposal was floated to try to entice UF students to take more classes. The proposed bait was nothing other than enhanced prospects for snagging gridiron tickets.

Sports in the Sunshine State are, of course, a secular religion.

Superficial as it might be, the Gator guff binds together people who might not have any other ties in common. All of which is to acknowledge that there is a sense in which carping about certain practices and salaries belies a failure to grasp the sacral significance of the Gator playing fields.

Rather than act as though they exist in some other realm from the university that they represent, the men who walk the sideline and court could show some solidarity and concern for the people who work the front of a classroom. When academic programs are in financial trouble, they should blow the whistle that hangs around their necks and ask everyone to pitch in and help.

Coaches in the multimillionaire circle have always prided themselves on being teachers, and as such they might insist on refusing raises so long as the salaries of their fellow teachers remain on hold. They might want to think about coaching their faithfully fervent boosters to direct their fundraising efforts to resolving the financial crisis at the university.

Sure, President Machen announced recently that the Athletic Association will be contributing $6 million toward scholarships for low-income students, but boosters could do much more, especially in the current crisis.

This might mean that the coaches will have to forgo their promised office renovations this year, but these are rugged guys and they could live with that. What they should not be able to live with is the fact that if the current trend continues they will soon be representing a third-rate academic institution. After all, the universities of Texas, California, Wisconsin and Michigan certainly attest that you can appear in bowl games without falling to the bottom of the academic barrel.

Gordon Marino has been an assistant football coach at Yale. He is now a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College. This column was originally published in the St. Petersburg Times.

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