UC Santa Cruz released plans for a ballot initiative last week that would keep NCAA sports financially viable for the foreseeable future. The plan would provide the UCSC athletics department with an estimated $3,548,245 in additional funding to be generated through a proposed student fee — enough to keep the department from operating at a deficit as it does currently.

The athletics department spends just over $2 million per year on salary and operating costs, well over its current budget of about $1.4 million — the lowest among all UCs participating in NCAA sports with the next lowest, UC San Diego, coming in at just under $9 million. In 2013, the university considered phasing out intercollegiate athletics altogether as a result of the operating deficit but instead opted to subsidize funding for the department with a $1 million yearly budget supplement that would last until 2017, giving the department time to find alternative funding. With that stipend expiring, this year’s referendum would take the place of those funds.

UCSC athletics director Cliff Dochterman presents the NCAA referenda to SUA. Photo by Stephen De Ropp.
UCSC athletics director Cliff Dochterman presents the NCAA referenda to SUA. Photo by Stephen De Ropp.

“Given the situation in terms of the overall budget on campus I’m very reluctant to commit any permanent funds that could support the broader academic mission to a relatively small program in intercollegiate athletics, so I made [the temporary funding increase] dependent on them finding additional sources of income,” said Executive Vice Chancellor Alison Galloway. “I’ve given them time to make that transition but given the budget situation [the current level of funding] is not something we can sustain.”

The current $1.4 million budget for the athletics department is derived from several sources, with a significant portion already stemming from student fees. The Student Services Fee, Student Programs Fee — passed as Measure 7 in 2003 — and the Intercollegiate Athletics Sports Team Fee — enacted in 2007 as Measure 31 — all contribute to the department’s annual budget.

The proposed referendum, or the Athletics Operations Enhancement Fee, would impose a compulsory student fee of $117 per quarter for each enrolled undergraduate student. The fee would begin in fall 2015 and continue indefinitely while being increased at an estimated rate of 2 percent yearly to adjust for inflation.

The Student Fee Advisory Committee (SFAC) — a student-run committee responsible for oversight of student fee allocations — has opposed the fee calling it “excessive” and citing annual increases and the fee’s lack of expiration as its primary concerns.

“We had a discussion within the committee and came to a consensus that we did not want to support the athletics measure,” said SFAC Chair Erik Green. “This particular measure is specifically about the team sports and I do not see that as a public good and therefore not something that should be subsidized by all students.”

UCSC Athletics Director Cliff Dochterman, who authored the measure, said while the fee may appear to some students as excessive, it is a small fraction of what is being paid by students for athletics at comparable colleges in California and is the only way to maintain an intercollegiate athletic program at UCSC.

“I can understand why they would say that [the fee is excessive], but we’re so underfunded and all these years there haven’t been a continuing increase in contributions toward the program so the gap has become so incredibly large,” Dochterman said. “I just don’t think that they understand how deep the problem really is and how far underfunded we are.”

With tuition increases on the horizon, many students are weary of voluntarily increasing student costs, and athletics will not be the only department asking students to increase fees come election day this May. Student Health Services and Learning Support Services are also asking for new or increased fees in this year’s elections with the total of all three measures resulting in a student fee increase of $232.36 per student per quarter should they pass.

“Most of the fees proposed in past referenda have been in the neighborhood of a dozen dollars or less, so this definitely is new territory,” said Student Union Assembly (SUA) Chair Justin Lardinois. “There are a lot of people on campus who feel that the cost of attendance is too high and especially with the tuition increases it is only going to get higher, so if it’s too high that makes people not want to pass new fees and pay more to go here. However, students may be more inclined to support fee-based referenda because they allow students to choose whether specific services are worth increasing fees for.”

The athletic department considers the proposed fee a last resort and said it will provide just enough funding to keep intercollegiate athletics alive at UCSC. Without it, NCAA sports will be phased out entirely by the end of the 2016-17 season.

In an excerpt from the referendum, Dochterman stressed the severity of the athletics department’s financial situation.

“The current [financial] situation is not sustainable and will get worse once central campus funding expires,” Dochterman wrote. “Without a new funding stream, various sports and other operations would need to be curtailed and/or eliminated, which would likely mean intercollegiate athletics would end at UCSC.”

To pass, the referendum would require an approval of at least 65 percent yes votes with at least 25 percent voter turnout among undergraduates — something that has not happened since 2011, the last time a student fee initiative was passed.

“What’s going to happen this year is people are galvanized by the tuition increases, it’s going to get more people out to vote, regardless of how they vote,” Lardinois said.

While the student fee would allow the department to continue operating intercollegiate athletics at the current level, it fails to address issues seen by some in the department as critical for the future of NCAA sports at UCSC.

The school’s 14 NCAA teams compete in Division III, the lowest tier within the NCAA. The division has proven problematic in recent years for the Slugs with schools like UC San Diego, CSU East Bay and San Francisco State all moving out of Division III and making the jump to Division II, leaving UCSC with little competition to play in the region and causing increasingly distant travel with a budget that has not increased accordingly.

“Everyone pretty much left us [in Division III] and because there was such benign neglect here at Santa Cruz, it came down to the individual views of a few people to not evolve the program,” Dochterman said.

A move to Division II would limit the need for extensive long distance travel as the teams would compete in the California Collegiate Athletic Association, pitting them against schools like CSU Monterey Bay, Chico State and 11 other schools in California. This is seen by many in the department, including Dochterman, as the best option for the future of the program. The referendum was initially conceptualized to include a larger fee of around $153 to allow a budget for such a move, but the current political climate on campus forced that language out of the initiative for fear it would fail.

“We thought [a higher fee to allow a move to Division II] might gum up the election and might be just too hard of a message to explain at this point,” Dochterman said. “We’ve got to maintain this and have it not disappear, then we can think about Division II later on.”