There is much to be said in response to Michael Gargano’s opinion piece (“Athletics did not create the financial crisis at UHart” April 26) on the University of Hartford and its contemplation to move from Division I to Division III athletics, but I will confine myself to three points.
First, Gargano is hardly a neutral observer here. He was part of the decision-making back in the 1980s that moved UHart up to Division I. Given that, it is interesting that he is willing to term President Greg Woodward’s tenure as one of “failed leadership” just three and a half years into the job while simultaneously suggesting we continue to wait for the promised rewards of Division I athletics some 37 years later.
By any reasonable measure those benefits have failed to materialize. Meanwhile the red ink in the athletics program has only deepened year after year. While touting the one NCAA men’s basketball tournament appearance UHart made just this year, Gargano and others ignore some of the negatives aside from costs associated with big time athletics, including at Hartford. Just last November the NCAA found UHart’s athletics department guilty of a number of infractions including improperly certifying 27 student-athletes as eligible in 30 occurrences across eight sports. A year earlier a former Division I student athlete sued the university for more than $1 million over allegations of verbal and emotional abuse and sexual harassment from her former coach at UHart. This is hardly the kind of good will and promise that boosters have in mind when pushing Division I athletics, yet they are an unfortunate regular occurrences across such programs.
Second, Gargano cherry-picks data from Woodward’s tenure to argue that the university’s problems come from under-enrollment during his watch. In fact, enrollment struggles at UHart have been present since the 2008 financial crisis. That means that both enrollment and budgets problems deepened during the eight to nine years prior to Woodward’s arrival under his predecessor Walter Harrison. Harrison did little to right that ship and also protected athletics while overseeing the cutting of various academic programs and staff over that time.
A deeper dive into admissions also shows that during that earlier period more and more admits involved students who – based on high school grades and standardized tests – were statistically far less likely to be successful college students. Simultaneously, many of these same students came from families who were unable to afford four years of tuition, room and board. Many of these students studied for a semester or year, and then dropped out with lots of debt for themselves and their families but no degree. When Woodward arrived, he publicly announced a five-year program to increase not just enrollment but also retention at the university by focusing on admitting more promising students. While there is much still to be done with initial enrollment numbers, retention levels are up markedly since his arrival. In fact, last year they were at record high levels.
Lastly, we have now heard from several constituencies regarding the debate over Division I vs. Division III athletics. Administrators, boosters, faculty, current and former student athletes and consultants have all chimed in. The one group with much at stake whom we have yet to hear from are students outside of Division I athletics at the University of Hartford. As Gargano himself, citing NCAA data, wrote in an earlier opinion piece regarding the University of New Haven’s contemplation of moving up from Division II to Division I athletics a couple of years ago (“Can U of New Haven afford to join NCAA Division I ?” CT Mirror, Sept.12, 2019”), most Division I programs pay for themselves with roughly a third their budget coming from student fees and another 30 percent from reallocating student tuition dollars to athletics. In other words, almost two-thirds of the average Division I athletics budget comes from involuntary taxes folded into every student’s tuition, room and board bill.
I wonder if our Hartford students know how much of their tuition dollar is going not to their education, but to athletics. Has anyone asked our students and their families, when they learn of that tax, whether they want to continue to subsidize Division I athletics at Hartford at that price tag?
Michael Clancy is a Professor of Politics, Economics, and International Studies at the University of Hartford.