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EWU Interim President recommends Athletics stay DI, keep football program

The Board of Trustees at EWU will make their final decision on the matter in June.
Credit: EWU Athletics/Erik Smith

CHENEY, Wash — Eastern Washington University Interim President David May recommended to the school's board of trustees on Friday that their athletics program stay in Division I and that they not cut their football program.

This is only a recommendation from May, as the board will make its official decision on EWU Athletics' fate in June. The Board of Trustees' website has a portal open for public feedback on the plan.

May said moving down in athletics would negatively impact recruiting local students to enroll at Eastern and would cause the ending of athletic sponsorships that would damage the university's fundraising opportunities. He also said athletics helps make the student body diverse.

“Moving to a lower divisions or association or eliminated some sports does not align with the vision that EWU has created. That vision reads in part, ‘Eastern Washington university is a driving force for the culture, economy, workforce, and vitality of Washington state,'" May said in his presentation.

According to a report from the PICTOR Group, EWU has four options from which to choose. The school can remain an NCAA Division I-FCS program, reclassify to a subdivision of NCAA Division I, reclassify to NCAA Division II or reclassify to NCAA Division III.

The PICTOR Group report said that if EWU remains a NCAA DI FCS program, they would have to cut athletic funding elsewhere. According to the report, they would also need to invest more money into the the department and find more aggressive ways to generate revenue or they could select which sports to allocate the majority of their funding to, then fund other teams as if they were Division III. 

“To achieve this in a manner that is sustainable in the future, EWU will have to make the decision to tier its sports array, stepping back from full support for some sports," May acknowledged to the board.

To view the entire report, click here. For a summary of all of the options for EWU, click here.

Report author: 'I'm distressed on behalf of Athletics'

David Syphers, a physics professor at EWU and an author of the report, provided a personal statement in response to May's recommendation. Syphers will take over as president of the Faculty Organization on July 1, but he is not speaking on behalf of its members.

Syphers' full statement is as follows: 

"I’m disappointed that interim President May has chosen to punt on a real decision about the future of athletics at Eastern, ensuring that the next president of EWU will have to revisit this issue as soon as they start in just over a year. The report from The PICTOR Group made clear that Eastern Athletics would need $6–8 million more each year to remain a functioning Division I program. “To remain a NCAA Division I-FCS institution and member of the Big Sky Conference, Eastern’s financial support will need to trend closer to the Big Sky median. That would require a reversal in the current reductions in university appropriations and an additional investment of another $4 million annually” (p. 31). (The “reversal in the current reductions” is $2–4 million, depending on what time period they’re referring to.)

All too many areas of Eastern have been asked to do more with less for years now, and increasingly so in this era of declining enrollment. From academic instruction to administration to staff supporting our students, time after time, we’ve shown that this simply is no longer possible—we were already running a very lean operation. When there’s no fat to cut, you cut muscle, and things stop working. We close campus during snowfall because we don’t have the staff to clear the snow adequately. We cancel courses because there’s no one to teach them. Students in crisis can’t reach a counselor in a timely manner. We delay major declarations because we don’t have the staff to process them.

I’m distressed on behalf of Athletics that they have been added to the list of units asked to do more than they possibly can on their budget. Their opportunities for efficiency or additional fundraising are quite limited, and don’t come close to filling in the gap of need. I certainly recognize that there is no additional money to give athletics, since the university is cutting in more necessary areas than this. But in that case, the kindest thing to do is to rescope their mission, and align their charge with their budget. We could reach such alignment by transitioning to NCAA Division II or to NAIA, either of which would place us appropriately with other regional comprehensive universities in the Pacific Northwest.

The Eastern athletics department has racked up many millions of dollars of debt, and has also in recent years spent well over its budget (but somehow not had that count towards debt). Any academic department displaying such financial irresponsibility would have been closed years ago. Instead, we’ve given Athletics license to keep up this behavior.

We must remember what the heart of a university is: academic programs for students. Most of the rest of the university exists to support this mission. Financial aid, academic advising, career advising, grounds maintenance, IT, housing, dining, scholarship fundraising, and so on all exist to allow academic instruction to serve students. Athletics is the odd one out. Athletics is not part of the central mission of teaching students. Like a student club, it can help bring people together, create a community, and motivate students to stay engaged. But there are clubs for every student and every interest, and collectively they all cost vastly less than athletics—which serves only 3% of our students.

As I addressed in my 2020 report, Athletics is not a cost-effective way of recruiting students, promoting diversity, or any of the other claimed benefits. In the current environment of tight and decreasing budgets, is irresponsible not to meet our students’ needs in the most cost-effective ways. 85% of our students care so little about athletics that they couldn’t be bothered to take a survey on it, and of the students who did take the survey, 58% did not agree that it was important for Eastern to have a comprehensive athletics program at all (let alone one that was Division I; page 14 of The PICTOR Group report). 82% didn’t think it was very important to have comprehensive athletics. If we thought the students really supported it, we’d hold a vote. We’d forbid tuition and mandatory fees from going to athletics, and tell the students to vote on a standalone athletics fee of ~$700/year/student to support our system (with above-inflation increases every year). We’re not doing that because we know it would fail."

Complete Program Review featuring president's recommendations 

On Friday, there was a complete list of the president of EWU's recommendations on all factors of the university's function. In addition to the Division status of athletics, there were additional recommendations to cut majors and programs. 

The following degrees have been made inactive or eliminated:

•Bachelor of Music/Jazz Bachelor of Music/Musical Theatre Master of •Music/Performance Master of Music/Jazz Studies BA and BS Journalism BAE •Visual Arts Education/Secondary (Elem and Sec. combined into one K-12 degree)
•Supply Chain/Operations Management (BAB) 

These reductions have already been approved by the university’s internal processes and have been approved by the provost. 

The following programs are recommended to continue with substantial changes identified by the department: 

•BM Music (Instrumental Performance, Piano Performance, Vocal Performance) •BM Music, Composition BA Music, Liberal Arts

Read the full report here.