Keep the Change

There’s been a lot of talk about what’s “best” for UCSD and how athletics play into the future of our institution. We can divide the controversy into two different camps: those who believe in a near future for Division I sports and the benefits it could bring, and those who believe we have more immediate priorities.

We’re just a week into the special election that will determine which path the campus will take, and the divide rages on. Many are sticking to their guns (turning Facebook into a virtual war zone), while others — like this Editorial Board — are open to considering new arguments. Though we initially expressed hesitant support of the referendum in our November editorial, “D-I Athletics: A Lasting Investment,” with the knowledge gained through increased coverage of the issue, we’ve had a change of heart.

No one can deny the appeal of D-I athletics. With 29 national championships, UCSD has clearly outgrown its competitors in the D-II California College Athletic Association. Our men’s water polo and women’s soccer teams are some of the best in the division, and women’s basketball was ranked No. 1 in the nation until a heartbreaking loss on Friday.

We’ve also outgrown D-II academically. Since we moved to Division II in 2000, we’ve been the only UC school in the division (UC Santa Cruz competes in D-III, UC Merced competes in NAIA, UC San Francisco doesn’t have athletics at all and the rest compete in D-I), and our statistics don’t match with our competition, which consists mostly of Cal States. The average enrollment for CCAA colleges is 15,000 undergraduates, while we have nearly double that at 28,000. Academically, the average 75th percentile verbal SAT score for CCAA is 528 — UCSD’s is 660. For math the average is 542 — UCSD is again higher at 710.

We’ve made these arguments before. Comparisons to other D-II schools are borne out of a reasonable desire to compete with schools along the same level as UCSD, such as UC Davis. But in the wake of protests like those held on March 1, such comparisons seem irrelevant now. The connection between academics and athletics is tenuous at best — even if there are colleges with strong academics and strong athletics, the two aren’t required to correlate. Harvey Mudd and MIT, for example, compete in D-III, and no one is knocking their prestige. Meanwhile, many D-I schools are athletics powerhouses with horrible academics, such as Oklahoma State University and University of Arizona — schools we consistently dominate on rankings.

What’s worse, almost all D-I programs run at a deficit. In 2006, only 19 of 119 D-I programs in the country made money. Given the current budget crisis, now is clearly not the time to make such a giant financial gamble. Just this last fall, fees increased by 17.6 percent, and UCOP told the Regents that if the state didn’t provide more funding, fees would continue to rise by 16 percent annually. So with our fees rising relentlessly as it is, the additional $495 each undergraduate would pay annually could be another $495 many have to take out in loans.

D-I could bring great things to UCSD — but, for lack of a better punch line, not now. And many of the “great things” outlined by the pro campaign — increased school spirit and university recognition — are intangible; you can’t measure “spirit,” so it’d be impossible to quantify the differences the move could make to the daily life of the average, non-athlete on campus, especially since the move would not include a football team and would not have us competing against Cal or UCLA. And though D-I proponents often point to the “Flutie effect” (as we did in our November editorial) — the assumption that athletic success leads to name recognition, prestige and spending — a 2004 study of nine D-I conferences found that the Flutie effect might not be statistically viable.

UCSD has no need to reinvent itself at this point anyway. People still want to come here despite it being known as an “academic” school (a record 75,987 students applied to UCSD in Fall 2011 — an overall increase of nearly 8 percent from the previous year), and we have a very long future ahead of us to reinvent ourselves later. “Not now” doesn’t mean “never.” It means “not when we’re in a deep, crippling financial crisis.”

The notion that our degrees are meaningless without a kickass basketball team — an idea supported by many on the pro side, including former A.S. president Utsav Gupta — is completely ridiculous. Just last month, UCSD was ranked eighth for salary earning potential in the 2011-12 PayScale study measuring top state schools across the nation. Executive director of UC San Diego Alumni Affairs Armin Afsahi told UCSD news that it’s our “prominent academic programs” that are preparing students to fulfill their career goals. While school spirit and athletic prestige are important, a guaranteed future without a hefty price tag during a recession is all most students really need.

“One of the greatest measures of a university is the quality of its graduates,” Afsahi said. “Our alumni are not only going on to achieve great success, they are also advancing their communities, creating jobs and building our economy.”
If that’s not something to have spirit about, we don’t know what is.

While this Editorial Board will be voting “No,” we encourage students to make up their own minds about where their priorities lie and vote in the special election on Triton Link. Tell your friends to vote. It’s crucial that this significant decision is made by the majority of the student body, and not just by the majority of the people who voted.