A Response to Chancellor Blank from the TAA

“Students received an email today suggesting that Athletics should pay for more of this project because students supported Athletic Department finances back in the 1990s. It’s my view this is a little like asking the Physics Department to pay for improvements in Chemistry, just because they both study science. Rec Sports facilities are designed for and used primarily by students and this is an appropriate use of student segregated fees.”

— Chancellor Rebecca Blank, Feb 24, 2014

Why do universities have athletic departments? Chancellor Blank has actually put her finger on it: “Education isn’t just about the mind. It’s about figuring out how to live one’s life as an effective and productive person, and that means integrating both the mind and the body” (Blank’s Slate 2/24/14). We agree. Our most active union members regularly run, row, bike, skate, lift, climb, dance, and play. And as graduate students we are constantly aware of the need to balance our research and teaching with our health and well-being.

This week, we are voting on the facilities where 83% of us are taking a break from classes and homework to restore our bodies, our regimen, and sense of physical well being. The facilities that the vast majority of undergrads and grad students use to lift, swim, and play sports from basketball to broomball. The facilities that help many of us hike up Bascom Hill and Van Hise without losing our breath. The facilities that need renovation.

Is it fair that the Athletics Department, which benefits in uncountable ways from a fit and health-conscious student body, and to which Badger fans pay millions a year in ticket sales, contribute a paltry $7 million to the Rec Sports renovations? Is it fair that they bear only 3% of the cost and leave 57% to be shouldered by their debt-saddled student supporters?

Chancellor Blank has compared our demand for Athletics to contribute a greater share to Rec Sports to “asking the Physics Department to pay for improvements in Chemistry, just because they both study science.” We have some problems with this mischaracterization. First, Athletics has already benefited from tapping student and employee money, by way of a segregated fee increase on students and an added parking surcharge on UW employees in the 1990s. It is not unreasonable to expect reciprocity. Second, we value interdisciplinary work and the offering of cross-listed courses on our campus, and other processes by which resources and faculty time are shared across departmental lines. Third, and more fundamentally, academic departments which generate revenue — such as Physics or Chemistry — in fact do contribute substantial financial support to the university, chiefly by way of giving over huge portions of private and federal grants to the university for overhead costs. This, in effect, helps to support the operation of those academic departments which do not generate revenue but are nevertheless also essential to a university education, such as History, English, Philosophy, and many others. The university is a university rather than a fragmented series of private units precisely because departments operate on a principle of mutual support rather than narrow self-interest.

Why does this simple principle not apply in this case? Why are the students who work hard to make UW-Madison great, and the graduate students who do a lion’s share of the teaching and research, the ones being forced to carry an enormous financial burden in order to renovate the UW’s recreational sports facilities, regardless of which way we vote in the upcoming referendum?

What has been left out of much of the discussion on the Rec Sports Master Plan is the current seg fee burden already borne by UW students. An increase in segregated fees of $216 per year matters for students who are just scraping by on assistantships or work-study income, or taking out loans for education. An annual increase in segregated fees of $216 is a big deal to graduate students who are trying to live off of some of the lowest teaching pay in the nation, and who are already paying $1130 per year in seg fees — a figure which towers over the Big 10 average.

Therefore we are asking the Athletics Department to contribute more to Rec Sports because the UW Division of Intercollegiate Athletics should not remain apart and separated from the 83% of undergrads and grad students who use Rec Sports facilities. We believe this request is compatible with the Athletics Department’s on mission statement:: “The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison dedicates itself to the mission of providing athletic opportunities to a wide range of students and an environment in which all student-athletes can achieve their academic and competitive goals.”

All UW students can see the value of this mission. We can also see the value in having high-quality facilities that help non-athletes achieve their fitness goals. When the University asks all of us across campus to share in the cost of renewing our sports facilities — at a cost of $127 million — we are in turn asking the whole University to support us as already financially-stressed students, researchers, and teachers, and for those who can more easily afford it to share in the burden of this project.

The TAA has not opposed the Rec Sports Master Plan, and we have not counseled our membership or anyone else to vote against it. What the TAA has done is to say that the current practice of continually increasing the private burden on students for the ability to access a public university is unsustainable and antithetical to the principles of public higher education. Whether the referendum passes or not, there is money in the university to improve our Rec Sports facilities without pricing out more students or driving them further into debt. All we have done is to suggest an alternative.

The Executive Board of the UW-Madison Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA)

Send a letter to Barry Alvarez, tell the athletics department to carry the weight!