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Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway voices strong support for long term mission of athletics

In his budget address on Friday, the head of the university made it clear that athletic spending has value often overlooked by its opponents.

Syndication: The Record Chris Pedota, / USA TODAY NETWORK

In any successful organization, alignment is essential from the top all the way down. This is not a concept that has ever come easily at Rutgers. In the university’s defense, it’s as complicated an institution of higher learning as there is for many reasons including location, size, and politics to name a few. However, a lack of transparency and internal fighting in public over the years has certainly created issues that Rutgers has been challenged in overcoming.

There has not been a more polarizing issue at Rutgers over the years than athletics spending and no more vocal opponent of it than its own faculty. The semi-regular hit pieces propped up by the same attention seeking professors with the same old arguments, academics who’ve been with the university for decades preferring Rutgers went the way of the Ivy and Patriot leagues rather than big time athletics, as well as concerns that sports is overemphasized to the detriment of academic spending are part of the culture of the university at this point. Lately, politicians and reporters have grown more vocal in demanding answers and change as a way to placate their own constituents and readers.

The leadership of the university over the years has typically handled these opponents with the equivalency of the surrender punt. Those days are now officially over.

On Friday, President Jonathan Holloway gave a speech regarding the budget specifically to the University Senate but in reality, the entire Rutgers community. He made it clear that the old way of doing things was in the past.

“Prior to Rutgers, I served in private institutions that didn’t have a tradition of opening their financial books, something I worked to change during my time in those universities,” said Holloway. “When I got to Rutgers, I presumed I wouldn’t have to do that work here since the institution’s records were open to the public. Eighteen months later, knowing the university better than I did when I arrived, I understand those who felt frustrated by a perceived administrative failure to be open about its finances. Let me be clear; I do not think for a minute that the university was trying to hide anything. It was not. I do believe, however, that the central administration missed opportunities to make things much less opaque.”

Less than two years on the job, Holloway has been handed the difficult task of elevating and unifying a university during a global pandemic. He’s run into criticism for vaccination requirements for students, cancelling in-person graduations due to Covid-19 concerns as well as limitations to capacity for athletic events and indoor policies for events at Jersey Mike’s Arena this winter season. He’s proven that his decisions are based on what he thinks is best based on the circumstances, not what is most popular. This was Holloway’s approach again on Friday.

“Just as we will be creative in enhancing or generating new revenue streams, there are many areas of the university that will simply never be revenue-generating and should not be expected to be,” said Holloway bluntly. “These areas, which in fact cover almost every undergraduate-focused discipline at Rutgers—are investments for the university. It has been our practice to use the language of “subvention” and “deficit” to describe non-revenue generating units. This approach does these units a disservice since it can suggest that we expect them to generate profits. Going forward, I have asked my administration to recast its thinking on this matter, reconceptualizing non-self-sustaining units as institutional investments that are important elements to the work of the university.”

This statement alone was radical from a historical perspective within the university in admitting certain areas of business are unable to be relied upon as revenue generators. Holloway took it a step further to name names.

“To offer but a few examples where this new way of thinking applies: we invest in the libraries, we invest in the humanities, and, yes, we invest in athletics,” explained Holloway. “In their own ways, each of these areas are important articulations of the health, mission, and narrative of the university. There are also important returns on these investments: educated citizens and improved social and economic outcomes, life-changing research discoveries, stronger and closer-knit communities.”

Rutgers spent $118.4 million to fund its athletics program during the 2020-2021 academic year, per this recent report from Keith Sargeant of NJ Advance Media. A school record $73.3 million budget deficit was settled by student fees, loans, and the university’s overall budget in addition to other sources. Obviously, Covid-19 created issues like any other school year for athletics including added costs for testing and other related protocols, as well as fans being unable to attend games with lost revenue substantial.

Holloway pointed to the bigger picture and the importance of handling budget issues upfront and proactively.

“On this matter let me be clear: we are not going to do anything clever with the finances; we are not going to cut corners that would run afoul of standard accounting practices,” confirmed Holloway. “And we are not giving anyone a free pass when it comes to prudent stewardship of resources. What I am talking about is engaging in a semantic reorientation so that we can have a more substantive and honest conversation about how the university uses its resources and why.”

Holloway continued in voicing his full support for the athletic department by shooting down the myth that the goal of being self-sustainable is unrealistic.

“For this reason, I intentionally have mentioned athletics here,” stated Holloway. “For too long the entire Rutgers community has been laboring under the illusion that athletics will generate enough revenue to pay for itself and, then, in time turn a profit. Let me disabuse you of that claim. While I would be thrilled if athletics were to cover all of its expenses, it is highly unlikely that it will.”

A key ingredient missing from the arguments typically made by opponents of athletic spending at Rutgers is context. You simply cannot judge or critique the actions of a group or department without perspective. Holloway provided it with ease by stating two facts that show Rutgers is not unique in their financial management of big time athletics.

“Only 2 percent of major college athletics programs run in the black, and not many more than that break even,” expressed Holloway. He continued, “For those who remain dissatisfied and would prefer to see the athletics program dissolved in order to redirect funds elsewhere in the university, keep in mind that athletics represents 2 percent of the operating budget. Put another way, dissolving athletics would not solve our budget challenges.”

It’s not just about providing context, but promoting the value of athletics as well. This is something that Holloway cut right to the heart of the matter in a way that should make all Rutgers sports fans smile.

“The better way to think about athletics is that it represents a commitment by the university that helps tell a compelling story about this institution—one that will inspire applicants, alumni, and friends to learn more about we have to offer as a university in 2022,” stated Holloway. “In this regard, the story-telling capability of athletics far outstrips any other thing that we do at Rutgers. Some of you may not like to hear it, but this is just honest talk. Despite the brilliance of our faculty, the importance of our impressive research breakthroughs, and the many talents of our students outside of athletics, there are no other activities at the university that can summon tens of thousands of people together in person to support Rutgers, not to mention the millions more who will follow us on television or online.”

If any quote could match the authority of a Cliff Omoruyi slam dunk, this is it.

Assessing the value that Rutgers athletics brings includes national exposure for the university, expansion in other areas, an overall positive perception of Rutgers and a sense of pride for its alumni. Athletics connects and engages fans to a school in a way that isn’t possible otherwise.

Another positive due to athletics is that Rutgers is a member of the Big Ten. Research collaborations among all member institutions throughout the Big Ten Alliance is a major deal with all 14 schools but one also being AAU members. I’ve always found it ironic that the Rutgers faculty as a whole hasn’t given an honest evaluation of this benefit and never seems to mention it.

Holloway also added how important it is to himself and the university that student-athletes excel in the classroom. Not only is it true, but it’s an effort to find common ground with opponents who place so much importance on academics.

“What deepens my support for athletics at Rutgers is that we have coaches who are strongly committed to integrity and to seeing their players graduate,” said Holloway. “I take great pride in the fact that we have one of the top-performing athletic programs in the country in terms of academic performance. I hope you share in that pride.”

Holloway understands why investing in the athletic department and supporting our beloved teams is so important. His message to the rest of the university was to get on board because of how important the department is to Rutgers as a whole, not because it’s going to make money.

Being transparent about this and forcing others to look at positives aside from the financial impact is necessary to achieve alignment across the university. It will take a long time for this to happen, if it ever does. But Holloway is clearly trying and even if achieving that is unrealistic, throwing his full support behind the athletic department is a huge win and the most important thing.

Major progress has been made on the field and court in the past few years in part to the leadership and vision of athletic director Pat Hobbs. With this recent new partnership with Holloway, the department is as well positioned for the future as its ever been.

If you are a fan of Rutgers athletics, than you should be a fan of Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway.