When University of Montana President Royce Engstrom recently fielded questions from a room of College of Arts and Sciences faculty about UM's budget shortfall, one matter kept coming up: How the cuts would affect the athletics department. One faculty member jokingly asked Engstrom if the university had considered privatizing the football team as a way to raise money. Another commented that he remembered the days when Montana State UniversityBillings had football. He pointed out that it no longer did.
The source of the prickly undertone regarding school athletics was clear. When allegations of sexual assault by UM football players first surfaced in December 2011, the university's enrollment had been trending upward for years. By 2012, though, amid mounting accusations and controversy, enrollment began to decline, as did the university's revenue from tuition. By 2013, with on-going investigations and questions about UM's handling of sexual assault cases, the university's full-time undergraduate enrollment had fallen from a 2011 high of 10,305 to 9,266. The result is a projected $17 million budget shortfall.
UM Director of Athletics Kent Haslam knows faculty members are anxious about budget cuts, but he feels it's unreasonable to "tie a direct line that athletics is the cause of the enrollment drop."
He points out that despite the "perception that athletics gets everything that it wants," his department is not immune to the shortfall, and says his office will have to "tighten up" next year. Though he says he has not been forced to cut any employees or reduce salaries, next season's Griz games may have fewer ushers and ticket takers.
Even if one does accept an apparent correlation between the dip in enrollment and UM's sexual assault scandal, Haslam says the university's "investment on athletics returns tenfold." In 2012, the football team alone brought in nearly $5 million to the university. And of the athletic department's roughly $17 million budget, he says, less than $6 million comes from the university's general fund. The rest is supported by private donations and revenue generated from things like ticket sales and stadium advertising.
"There'd be an argument to be made that the tremendous enrollment growth this university experienced was because of the tremendous success coming from a tremendous athletic program. So you just can't take the good and then get rid of it when you feel like it's bad," he says. "Athletics is not the most important thing we do here. But it's important."
Especially when it comes to money.