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- The University of Nebraska’s plan for a $450 million overhaul of the Cornhuskers’ home field, Memorial Stadium, is drawing sharp criticism.
- Critics accuse the Big Ten school, which is also proposing millions in spending cuts to the university system, of prioritizing athletics over academics.
- “If an institution is putting zillions into athletics at the same time they are proposing cuts to academic programs and faculty, they have their priorities all wrong,” American Association of University Professors President Irene Mulvey said.
The University of Nebraska is planning a $450 million renovation of the Cornhuskers’ football stadium in Lincoln and at the same time looking to cut millions of dollars from the university system, leading critics to question whether officials care more about athletics than academics.
Faculty at Nebraska and nationally acknowledge the importance of athletics at a Big Ten university but said the divergent funding plans send a message that teaching and research take a back seat to Nebraska’s football program.
“If an institution is putting zillions into athletics at the same time they are proposing cuts to academic programs and faculty, they have their priorities all wrong,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the college faculty advocacy group American Association of University Professors.
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Mulvey, a mathematics professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut, said it’s incumbent on university and state leaders to promote a university’s core academic mission to donors to ensure those programs and staff are adequately funded.
The high-priced Memorial Stadium renovation was given preliminary approval this fall, even as the four-campus University of Nebraska system faces a $58 million budget shortfall that threatens to cut staff and academic programs. That includes deep cuts at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where students and staff have protested the school’s announced elimination of its geography and theater programs, as well as cuts to other humanities offerings and its cybersecurity program.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln — the system’s flagship campus and home of the Nebraska Cornhuskers — and the University of Nebraska-Omaha also are anticipating academic program cuts to deal with shortfalls blamed on inflation, stunted revenue growth and declining enrollment. UNL has also proposed cutting its Office of Diversity and Inclusion budget by more than 70%.
The cuts mirror those seen at universities across the country that have also been targeted by Republican lawmakers in a battle taking aim at schools’ college diversity initiatives, tenured professors, humanities programs and even how colleges can teach and discuss race.
The struggle facing college academia comes as a string of high-profile, high-dollar issues highlight just how much money is pouring into college athletics. That includes multimillion-dollar payouts to fired college football coaches, billion-dollar athletic conference media contracts that send millions a year to member schools and yet-to-be-decided court cases that could see some of that money going to pay college athletes.
The optics of seeking a nearly half-billion dollar stadium renovation while cutting academic programs “are awful,” said UNK political science professor William Avilés. Equally as bad are the ballooning salaries of university administrators, such as the $1 million annual pay to the outgoing NU President — a nearly 40% increase over his predecessor — as academic programs are being cut.
On the UNK campus, “there’s a mixture of anger, frustration, resignation,” Avilés said. “It’s just another example of misplaced priorities.”
Nebraska’s stadium proposal has also drawn notice because it supports a football program that seems to have been living off its long-past glory days. Nebraska was once a national powerhouse in college football, claiming five national championship titles since the early 1970s. But the Cornhuskers’ last championship win came in 1997, and the program has steadily declined since, cycling through six head coaches and going the last seven years without a bowl game appearance.
Despite the decadeslong slump, Nebraska football remains exceptionally popular in a state with no other Division 1 college football program and no professional sports teams. Nebraska Athletic Director Trev Alberts said in a September announcement that catering to that fan base played a large role in the stadium renovation, which will include more restrooms, more concourse connectivity to make it a true “bowl,” widened walkways and adding chairbacks for stadium seating. But it will also cut the stadium’s capacity by about 15,000 seats from its current capacity of 90,000 — reversing work in the previous decade that spent millions to increase seating capacity from around 75,000.
The reduction is necessary to increase comfort and amenities and keep the stadium a draw for fans, he said.
“There’s been a lot of changes in college athletics,” Alberts said. “What started out for me as a very simple modernization plan based on amenities relative to fans’ expectation has very quickly changed into a business strategy for the next 25 to 50 years.”
Nebraska’s athletic department is among a handful in the country that is self-sufficient, operating without taxpayer or tuition dollars. But when asked at a recent news conference whether he could pledge public money would not be used for the stadium renovation, Gov. Jim Pillen — himself a former Nebraska football player — refrained from making that commitment.
Asked this week by The Associated Press whether he’s considering state funding of the project, Pillen’s office said he is not including any funding for Memorial Stadium in his proposed budget.
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Alberts and other university officials say the project will not use taxpayer money, instead relying on private fundraising and the athletic department’s surplus funds.
“In other words, we could stop the stadium project today, but that would not do anything to mitigate the $58 million shortfall,” said Melissa Lee, spokeswoman for the University of Nebraska. “The dollars that will fund the stadium renovation cannot otherwise be used to pay university salaries or keep the lights on or fund an academic program.”
Some in academia want to see private fundraising for academic programs and staff, much the way athletics raises money for athletic programs.
UNL sociology professor Christina Falci, who is president of the American Association of University Professors’ UNL chapter, said higher education fundraising outside of athletics is concentrated mostly in boosting research centers, student services and endowed chairs, not in aiding humanities and the professors who teach them.
Without a push to bring in such revenue for academia, she said, “you’re going to shrink the breadth of courses that students can take.”