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Who should support UH sports?

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The crowd goes wild after Ryan Grice-Mullens scored the game-winning touchdown against the University of Washington in 2007. Because the public won’t support the full cost of UH athletics, university administrators want to force students to subsidize the program.

The University of Hawaii-Manoa has a new, unjustifiable fix for dealing with its athletic program’s perpetual $2 million financial woes. If UH-Manoa Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw has her way, beginning Spring 2011 all UH-Manoa students will be charged a mandatory $50 student athletic fee. This is simply an athletic department bailout put on the backs of people who are too powerless to stop it. Just because other universities around the country charge this fee does not make it right. More importantly, ASUH, the university’s student government, opposes the fee — as do, according to a survey, over three-fourths of the students.

The fee shows the temptation for bad decisions when desperation combines with power. Fifty dollars may seem like chump change, but it is not just about that money. It is a hint of bad things to come in the struggle to deal with a perpetual budget crisis affecting not just UH athletics but the university as a whole.

There are times when all of us have to pay for things that we do not want. We may grumble about taxes, but for most, the idea of taxation seems fair, provided the funds help achieve some common good. Think of new, up-to-date math books for August Ahrens Elementary fifth-graders or a new tower ladder truck for the Kakaako Fire Station. The public as a whole benefits from better-educated students and better-equipped fire engines. But that’s not what college athletics is. College sports, like TV and movies, are entertainment. Think "Shrek." How many of you taxpayers would be OK with the state or anyone else forcing you to buy "Shrek" tickets?

No surprise, supporters of the fee use education-speak to dress up this plan. The fee, Chancellor Hinshaw says, will "enhance the student experience related to athletics." Excuse me? Those are words that educators use to justify language requirements, cultural exchanges and work-study programs.

But we are talking about ball games here, for goodness sake. I liked "Shrek," but I did not go to enhance my experience related to animated donkeys.

UH can take this money, a Manoa spokesperson says, because UH athletics is good "for the entire community." But in fact the community does not appear to think that UH athletics are all that important for the community. Our community treats UH athletic events the same way it treats movies. Except for a hard core, people go if the game promises to be good, stay home if it is likely to be not so good.

The university can’t make people in the community buy tickets. Why doesn’t the chancellor dock $50 from every faculty and staff member to enhance their experiences? Because she can’t do that either. Why is she taking it from the students? Because she can.

This combination of desperation and power threatens to be the way UH will deal with its deep, likely-to-get-worse, financial plight. According to the Delta Project’s recent national study of university and college finances, "only the rosiest of optimists can believe what lies ahead is going to be similar to what we have seen before." That describes both UH athletics and UH as a whole. In both situations students will be compelled to carry more of the burden.

Here’s why. UH has four income streams: the state’s general fund, grants, private gifts and tuition. It is clear both here and nationally that state legislatures will become a less reliable source of university money. For a long time the UH, particularly its scientists, has done an excellent job getting grants, but it is very hard to get a lot more. Private gifts, especially big ones? We wish. The argument that a strong athletic program will financially benefit UH as a whole is more like a fairy tale than a wish because studies of college athletics show that that wish almost never comes true. In any case, lack of private philanthropy continues to be a problem at UH. UH remains undergifted and underendowed.

That leaves tuition and the students to keep UH afloat. To some extent, this is fair. Compared to other states, Hawaii’s public college and university tuition is very low. But higher education, like fire apparatus and fifth-grade books, is a public good that enhances us all. Paying for higher education needs to remain a strong public responsibility. Just because we can make students assume a huge burden does not mean that we should.


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