Let's Treat the Philosophy Department Like the Football Team

About 15 years ago, the English department at my institution, Murray State University, absorbed the philosophy department because it had too few majors to justify having its own administrative staff. It still has fewer philosophy majors than desired, which is quite likely true at other similar-sized institutions as well, and soon that shortage might lead to a reduction of philosophy faculty and a limiting of core philosophy courses.

That’s because the Kentucky legislature has voted to use performance metrics for public state universities. These metrics ostensibly reward institutions for meeting retention, graduation, and other quantitative measurements, but they will also mean potential punishments for academic programs that are unable to financially justify their place. That’s a consequence unlikely to be faced by athletic programs at my institution as well as others. This situation raises difficult questions for administrators, alumni, and fans, and it should be dealt with honestly.

Murray State, if anyone has heard of us, has a pretty good “midmajor” men’s basketball team, consistently winning 20 games or more a year, appearing in the NCAA top 10 ranking in 2011-12, and competing often in the NCAA tournament and other postseason tournaments.

The football team, however, is another story. A winning season is rare, though exceptional seasons occurred decades ago under the coaches Frank Beamer and Houston Nutt, both of whom bolted to larger institutions, leaving Murray State to its usual mediocrity as a steppingstone for ambitious coaches. And because football requires the largest number of athletic scholarships and highest costs to sustain, the question is: Can our university, or any university, exist without a football team?

The answer, of course, is yes. But such a suggestion, here and at most other public institutions, is met with doubt or disdain — not because our Racers football team is financially viable (it isn’t), but because intercollegiate football, or basketball, is perceived as the face of the modern public university, large or small. To reduce the role of football, whether by elimination or by designating it nonscholarship, represents a change that few dare to broach.

Murray State will most likely rely on the NCAA’s academic policies and consider any independent “performance measurement” as too disruptive to the athletics-conference structure to which we belong. Yet considering that 65 percent of our athletics budget is subsidized by the university rather than by athletics revenue, one has to wonder whether the money is well spent, and if nonstudent-athletes, who pay an athletics fee, and who compose the majority of the student body, are slighted in terms of funding.

Those who defend athletics point to intangibles such as “school spirit,” the communal experience of attending games, or keeping alumni involved. Our basketball team, without question, brings excitement to campus and beyond, but few people here care about football. It’s even possible that the award-winning Racer Marching Band draws more spectators to football games than the team itself does.

Nonetheless, ticket sales don’t make enough money to cover the cost of uniforms, travel, salaries, and scholarships. Consequently, significant amounts of money from the university must subsidize the football team and its near-futile aim of qualifying for the Football Championship Subdivision playoff, which pays very little to the participating teams.

As is true of many midsized or small colleges, even if our team went undefeated, only a tiny percentage of the world would care, and it would not very likely produce real dollars for the college. After our basketball team’s nearly undefeated 2011-12 season, our administration claimed that the team’s run had generated $43 million in “free” publicity. But that publicity has not consistently increased total enrollment, or generated any major donations on the academic side, or produced any tangible financial sum to pay back the university’s subsidies, short-term or long-term.

I recognize that these decisions are complex. But while it might go publicly unnoticed that our philosophy or modern-languages programs are at risk of attrition or reduction because students typically avoid them as majors, reducing or eliminating an underperforming football team’s scholarships would loudly betray the “Racer spirit.”

That said, we shouldn’t use only metrics like cost/benefit formulas or returns on investment. Just as the intangible value of a philosophy program to a university reflects a nonfinancial commitment to academic thought, there are intangible values to athletic endeavors, especially when opportunities for students to participate is expanded (for example, more intramural and club sports).

Those of us on the academic side ask simply that the “spirit” of academic knowledge be recognized as viable and enriching without a reductive assessment of its full-time equivalents and numbers of majors, and that innovative ways to market academic programs be given the same resources that athletic departments receive for merchandise sales or recruiting athletes. Or, at least, that underperforming athletic teams not be considered essential to the face and mission of the university — and thus untouchable when state funding and tuition become ever more limited.