News Article

Another Athletic Department Squeezed

Published on: 2017-07-17 08:50:02

HSU Athletics cuts: ‘We have to consider it’
By Will Houston, Eureka Times-Standard

Facing falling student enrollment and a growing deficit, Humboldt State University President Lisa Rossbacher and interim Athletics Director Duncan Robins said Friday that significant decisions will have to be made in the coming months for the HSU Athletics Department ­— including the potential for sports programs to be cut.

“Without using [state] General Funds or increasing student fees, to balance the budget is an impossibility without making some tough decisions,” Robins said in a conference room within the university’s Siemens Hall in Arcata. “Those tough decisions haven’t been made yet. We are debating several things including how to raise more money so we don’t have to be as severe on our cuts. But they’re still out there, they’re still looming.”

The HSU Athletics Department has run a deficit for the past two years and will run an even larger deficit in the coming school year, Robins said. Both Rossbacher and Robins attribute the deficit to reduced student enrollment since 2015, which reduces student fee revenue; increased equipment and travel costs; increased personnel costs due to the 2016 California State University salary increase agreement; and decreased ticket and sales revenue. 

The university had used its state General Funds to cover the department’s $245,000 deficit in the 2015-16 school year and its less than $500,000 deficit in the 2016-17 year. Rossbacher said in a March letter to coaches and staff that it can no longer use General Funds this way because the university has its own $2 million structural deficit to address.

The Athletics Department used to receive state General Funds until 2007 when the university switched the department’s funding model to student fee revenues and fundraising. 

“It was a way to balance the institutional budget, but I think it had the unfortunate impact of making the coaches and staff and Athletics in general not feel as much a part of the university as they are, as they need to be and as we want them to be,” Rossbacher said. “So I’ve been thrilled with all the work that Robins has been doing to reintegrate Athletics into the life of the campus.” 

Rossbacher said this past school year was the first in several years in which the university did not draw from its reserves.

Meanwhile, Robins — who took on the role of Athletics Director about five weeks ago — said that they are still working on his department’s projected budget for the 2017-18 school year, but said the deficit will likely be larger than $500,000.

“Revenues are likely to be worse than they have been in the past years and costs — even with our tightening and reduction of what we spend money on, — [are] going up,” Robins said. “... Hopefully we’ll figure out a way to have as little of an impact as possible. But the hole is getting bigger.”

As part of Rossbacher’s letter to Athletics staff in March, she called for a five-year financial forecast to balance the department’s budget without using General Funds or increasing student fees. HSU students already pay the highest student fees of all 23 California State University campuses. Robins said they have yet to be able to accomplish that task yet and said doing so will either require a significantly different method of funding Athletics or by making some “significant decisions.” 

“And those decisions would be, on the one side, how we administer a program, to what extent are we trying to win the league versus just field the team,” Robins said. “Because those two approaches can be different in terms of the cost not only on scholarships, but also on the amount of assistant couches we have and the amount of travel and non-conference games. “... Can we and do we want to dial back some programs? That’s a big question for all of us,” Robins continued. “We have to consider it. I think in the economic environment that Humboldt State is facing ... I don’t foresee extra money being found CSU-wide or within Humboldt for solving some of the budgetary needs that we have over in Athletics.”

A third-party review of the department by the Strategic Edge consulting firm found that cutting sports or switching to a lower NCAA division would only exacerbate the university’s and departments budget issues. The January report said that those options would likely lead to decreased enrollment, decreased student diversity and a loss of alumni support and donations.

The vast majority of expenditures for Athletics in the 2017-2018, including certain sports’ schedules, non-conference games that have already been contracted and scholarships have already been settled, Robins said. But how the department will generate funding is the major question. 

“On the revenue side, we are still going out and hoping that we continue our support from the community and we hope our results on students coming in will be as originally planned,” Robins said.

With student enrollment playing a large role in Athletics’ revenue stream, the forecast reduction of 300 students in the coming fall semester compared to the 2016 fall semester is not helping. Rossbacher said that decisions made in past years, such as the Enrollment Management vice president position being left vacant for a year or sending acceptance letters as an email rather than a hard copy, could correlate with the decline in enrollment. 

“There are just some things that help, early on, connect students to Humboldt that we were missing opportunities,” Rossbacher said. “We’re starting to address those again.”

External factors affecting enrollment included the University of California system being mandated by the Legislature to enroll more California residents, which Rossbacher said has reduced the pool of students who could enroll at HSU. Meanwhile, the CSU system’s initiative to graduate more students has led to more students leaving than are returning, Rossbacher said. The campus’ distance from other areas of the state is also another factor, Rossbacher said, which Robins said can also affect retention of students.

Robins said he has been working with the university’s Admissions Office to better integrate his department’s role in attracting students to the university.

“We do have resources in Athletics that are out in the field and are meeting players and are on campuses,” Robins said. “There are no reasons why we couldn’t use those resources to speak more generally about Humboldt rather than just certain players and certain programs.”

Robins said that the university’s student recruiters can in turn work to promote the university’s athletics programs.

While Robins said his department staff has been working diligently to cut back on costs, he said that the decisions are being made with the students in mind.

“The good news is they are putting their students first and doing whatever they can to make sure that nothing impacts their experience in a negative way,” Robins said.

Rossbacher said she is also planning to conduct a national search for a permanent Athletics director along with two recently vacated vice president positions for Student Affairs and Administrative Affairs.

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