Booster or bottomless pit? UAF's athletics fee keeps that department alive

This story has been updated to include the specific interviews from which Athletics Director Forrest Karr was quoted.

Andrew Sheeler / Sun Star Reporter
May 1, 2012

The Student Recreation Center weight room provides students with exercise equipment and a warm place to work out in the winter months. Michelle Strehl/Sun Star.

Students taking three or more credits at UAF do their part to keep the university athletics department afloat. They pay an $8-per-credit Athletics and Campus Recreation fee, which caps out at $96 a semester. The fee also pays for students to attend home game sporting events, though seating is on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Students taking classes solely through the College of Rural and Community Development are exempt from the fee, since they can reasonably justify not being able to attend games.

By comparison, students at UAA pay for their athletics department through a Student Life fee. The fee is $20 per credit, $9 of which goes toward the athletics department. The fee allows UAA students to attend athletic games and also gives them access to gym facilities, much as the Student Recreation Center fee does for UAF students.

While more than 4,000 students pay the fee, the median number of athletic event attendees is 103 students. The highest attendance was at the home game of the Alaska Airlines 2012 Governor’s Cup. The lowest attendance, 19, was at the Jan. 7 women’s basketball game.

Without the fee, the athletics department would operate at nearly $1 million dollar deficit. The fee helps the department pay for scholarships, team travel and employee salaries. The fee is not without its detractors, stretching all the way back to its sudden implementation in fall 2008.

An eleventh-hour fee

In mid-December 2007, as students were taking their final exams, then-Chancellor Steve Jones announced that he would create a new fee to help the athletics department shore up a half-million dollar deficit. The fee came about as part of an effort by Athletics Director Forrest Karr to balance his department’s budget. Students at the time erupted in protest of the new fee, at least in part because Jones had not consulted them before making his decision.

“We need to be certain that the athletics department is valuable enough to justify such an extraordinary fee increase,” then-ASUAF President Jake Hamburg and Vice President Danielle Ryder wrote in a memo to the chancellor.

“There is a large majority of students whom do not attend or participate in athletic events,” they wrote.The athletics department is asking students who are working and/or accepting loans to subsidize athletic scholarships.”

Jones balked at calls to reconsider the fee.

“The decision to revise fees was not made quickly or taken lightly, nor is an increased fee our only means to address the chronic operating deficit,” Jones wrote. The “other means” included a decision not to fill certain empty positions and to reduce the number of away games UAF sports teams play.

Jones’s decision drew criticism, not only from student government, but from students as well. Several wrote letters to The Sun Star protesting the fee.

“The only folks that I can tell, that are in favor of the new athletic fee are either folks that benefit directly from the fee (i.e. student athletes) or those that don’t have to pay the fee,” wrote Jeff Benowitz, a geology doctoral student.

“I keep trying to understand subsidized sports programs,” wrote Chena Newman, a self-described UAF parent,especially when team traveling to the Lower 49 is so expensive and disruptive to academic class time.”

“You have made a decision that benefits a small group of people whose mission is tangential to that of an educational institution,” wrote UAF student Joel Vonnahme, “and done so without seeking input from the students whom the decision affects.”

The fee officially went into effect in fall 2008. Since then, it has helped keep the athletics department solvent.

The numbers game

In the 2010-2011 academic year, UAF students paid more than $960,000 in fees to the athletics department. Student fees make up roughly an eighth of the department’s budget. Other significant forms of revenue include ticket sales and donor contributions. At more than $2 million, legislative appropriation makes up the single largest form of revenue. 

Add all that up, and the athletics department took in more than $8 million dollars and spent more than $7.8 million in the 2010-2011 academic year. Karr expects the fee to bring in less money this academic year, because rural students are no longer required to pay it.

Karr wrote in an email the fee “is partially responsible for what I consider the department’s greatest success story,” ending the academic year with a surplus. He added, “To my knowledge, the Department of Athletics and Campus Recreation ending a year with net revenue sometimes called carry forward, had never happened before.”

Athletics expenses go toward coach and employee salaries and benefits. It pays for teams to travel to away games. It covers athletic scholarships.  Travel and scholarships together make up a quarter of athletics’ budget. Roughly $1.1 million in athletic scholarships went to 98 students (43 male, 55 female) during the last academic year.

That same year, the athletics department paid an additional $1.1 million for its teams to travel to away games. Fairbanks’ remote location makes travel a much larger percentage of the athletics department budget than other similar-sized departments at Outside universities.

What about the student stakeholders?

Though the fee was met with uproar when introduced, students have had time to adjust to it. For newer students, the athletics fee has always been one they had to pay. Some are still not happy about it.

Angela Rutherford, a freshman studying geology, said she’d attended one game but wasn’t planning on attending more.

“If I’m not going to use it, and I know I’m not going to use it, what the hell am I paying for?” Rutherford said.

Others were more supportive. Eddy Hix, a junior in the accounting program, said he has gone to “three or four games,” and called the experience fun. Hix supports the fee, he said, so long as athletics “uses the money wisely.”

UAF needs the athletics fee, biology junior Cassie Bloom said, because it doesn’t have enough alumni to pay for sports.

“There’s only a certain percentage of alumni that give back to the school,” Bloom said, so students need to chip in.

Playing defense

Theresia Schnurr wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the athletics department. The senior majoring in biochemistry came to UAF all the way from the Black Forest, in Germany. She learned of UAF when a friend of hers came to the school, also on an athletic scholarship. In Germany, Schnurr said there are no student athletes. There are just students and professional athletes. When she learned she could ski and go to school at UAF, Schnurr jumped on the chance.

“I would not be here in Fairbanks, in the U.S., without an athletics scholarship,” Schnurr said. “It’s so cool to be able to do that,” she said.

She added that people who think student athletes coast through school on their benefits are wrong. Between the traveling, playing and representing the university, student athletes like Schnurr have less time to work on homework, participate in labs or attend lectures. Often, they spend hours when they get back just playing catch-up. Schnurr said she had athlete friends who spent their SpringFest day off holed up in the library “from 8 in the morning until 7 at night.”

“It’s not easy being a student athlete,” she said.

Ronny Parayno may not be a student athlete, but he’s no less invested in UAF’s athletics program. Parayno is a student employee in the athletics department, working as a student facilities supervisor.

“The athletics fee is there because it gives students opportunity,” Parayno said, including the chance to be part of the team or the ability to attend games. He called paying the fee “a great opportunity to go support the team.”

Foul? Fair play?

Without students to pay the athletics fee, the athletics department would be nearly $1 million in debt each year. Critics of the fee point out that it was levied with no student feedback and it benefits a small group of people at the expense of the entire student body. Supporters say it increases student diversity by bringing in student athletes from Outside and abroad. They point to the students whose academic achievements would have been impossible but for an athletic scholarship.

Fair or foul, the athletics fee isn’t likely to go away any time soon. Chancellor Brian Rogers supports the athletics program. Last year, he gave the green light to the athletics department to implement their “Nanook Pride” program, despite the program’s lack of a funding source. The program rewards students for attending home games by giving them UAF merchandise. In addition, Rogers said the athletics fee, which has remained the same since its creation, might be going up.

“We’re looking now at a $1 per credit hour increase in the athletics fee, recognizing that it’s been flat for quite a while,” Rogers said. The chancellor said he hasn’t seen any organized effort to curtail the athletics program at UAF, but “that comes down to the question of do we want to have an athletics program or do we not.”

“You can’t go much lower and have an athletics program,” he said.

Karr was skeptical to requests for data on student attendance at home games, calling such concerns “unnecessary drama” in an email exchange with The Sun Star faculty advisor, who assisted in the reporting of this story. In a phone interview,  Karr told the Sun Star faculty advisor he felt he was being unfairly targeted with requests for budgetary and fee information.

“You’re asking me to justify something I don’t feel needs to be justified,” he said.

Heather Bryant and Lynne Lott assisted in the reporting of this story.


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10 Responses

  1. newb says:

    Any program director that doesn’t feel then need to be able to justify their program and its costs shouldn’t be a director very much longer. Student attendance is probably in the single digit percentage range for a program that consumes $1 million in student money and another $4 million that is not available to the core teaching and research missions.

    Is the university here to provide sponsors advertising opportunity and fill Alaska Airlines seats or educate students and conduct world class research? If it is the later how does athletics support that and does it do it for more then the 100 or so student athletes? It is time for some real numbers and the students and faculty to answer these questions for UAF.

  2. Logan Stolpe says:

    Doesn’t need to be justified? Mr. Karr, I can hardly afford to put myself through school, and your telling me that I should pay nearly $200 a year to an athletics system that I don’t watch or benefit from, and you don’t think that it needs justification. Certainly if you make as much as Mr. Karr or Mr. Rogers ($85,347* and $303,527* respectively) you may not feel the fee. I, however, would rather use that money to buy about two weeks worth of groceries.

    Mr. Rogers, for me it’s not that it “comes down to the question of do we want to have an athletics program or do we not,” because I certainly couldn’t care less about having athletics at UAF. It comes down to the question of if I can afford to go to school.

    *salaries provided by the SunStar database

  3. Chris L says:

    Student attendance at home games has a median of 103? That’s barely more than the number of athletes on scholarship. I have no problem with athletes. I’m sure they are fine and not-so-fine people in the same percentage as any other group. But is UAF an institution of higher learning or an institution meant to subsidize a sports program?

    And the fees only comprise 1/8 of the budget? So we are wasting 8 million dollars to subsidize sports and the department helmed by a hapless, arrogant Director, both presences which give practically nothing of value to the mission of the institution that supports them?

  4. Will Collingwood says:

    Would it be possible to post the entire text from the phone interview and e-mail exchange with Mr. Karr?

    I find it hard to believe that a thinking person could be as obtuse as he appears in this article. Judging solely from his bio on the UAF page, he sounds like a stand-up guy. I hope Mr. Karr chooses to respond to this piece. His (perceived) arrogance and sense of entitlement does little to endear himself with the people paying the bills for his department.

  5. Will Collingwood says:

    After posting earlier in the day, Mr. Karr took the time to call me in response to some of the issues raised in my comment. I found him to be extremely gracious and forthcoming about the whole chain of events.

    After hearing his side of the story, I have to question the journalistic integrity of this piece. It is my understanding that Mr. Karr engaged in a lengthy e-mail exchange and an in-person interview that spanned several hours. Somehow, all of this was distilled into a couple of out of context quotes that portray Mr. Karr in a negative light. After hearing “the rest of the story”, this article comes across as a vindictive indictment of the Athletics and Campus Recreation fee rather than an unbiased reporting of the facts.

  6. Artic says:

    What is the operating budget of the Sun Star? How much money from student fees goes towards the Sun Star? What are the salaries of the Sun Star staff?

    UAF Administration has chosen to have athletics, thus it requires funding. If you don’t agree with it, you have the right to protest or to simply attend another university.
    Fiscal responsibility is important no matter where you are or what the economic situation is. I would respect this article more if it covered and focused on that, as opposed to bashing on Karr and athletics in general.

    There is over 450 academic scholarship funding available to ALL STUDENTS at UAF each year. That number far exceeds the total number of athletic scholarships given out each year. If you do the research you can see that there is balance taking place and the UAF administration is doing their job in that area. You want to see positive change, then be positive.

  7. John says:

    What some people are failing to recognize is that athletics provides a huge marketing arm for UAF. These student-athletes when they travel are representing UAF, and are doing so in a positive manner. I’ve seen several notes that have been mailed to chancellor Rogers over the years about these student-athletes taking the time to talk to them or their kid about life in Alaska and UAF; some even saying that they would encourage others to look at UAF as a possible option for college. My point is, athletics creates exposure for schools to audiences that would otherwise be impossible to reach. The hockey intro videos from a few years ago (the new one stinks, by the way) made national TV outlets like G4’s Attack of the Show, David Letterman, and the Norm MacDonald show, which caused the video on YouTube to take off, now with over 700,000 views in the last year. I highly doubt that the UAF homepage has been viewed 700,000
    times in the last year…

  8. Artic says:

    Chris L, I find it interesting that while at work for UAF you find time to bash a fellow employee. You want to talk about arrogance and giving nothing of value to the University.

    You ask a valid question Will… all information from Karr’s interviews and emails should be published along with whom did the interviewing, because without such information this article appears to lack journalistic integrity.

  9. jrgktg says:

    As a UAF alum turned donor, and as someone who has worked with Forrest and Brian on issues related to UAF development, both academically and athletically, I too have to question the integrity of this article. It’s very slanted towards an anti-athletic viewpoint. On a personal note, I can tell you that Forrest is nothing but gracious and often gets painted in a bad light because he has to make some tough decisions running an athletic department at the edge of the world. The fact that he made that department profitable for the first time in ages is nothing short of remarkable.

    As for those of you who complain about the athletic fees, this is commonplace at almost every major university. It takes money to run a department (not just athletics). If we want to still have a university, it also has to be run as a business.

    Even further, some of you need to study how other athletic departments around the country are run before making baseless comments. Texas A&M had to give its athletic department a $16 million loan, and that’s an SEC school with an infinite revenue stream. Suddenly, little old UAF turning a profit doesn’t sound so bad.

  10. jeff Benowitz says:

    It is time for inter-collegiate sports to go at the UA system.

    we simply can not afford it.

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