When I first started attending Rutgers in the Fall of 2001 the university had the football coach come to speak to all the incoming freshman. Offering free red t-shirts he pleaded with students to start coming to the games, our team needing the support of students to start winning. Few people went, the stadium often being mostly empty, at least until 2006. Everything changed that year. The team started gaining victories on the astroturf and students flocked to the stadium, some cutting class for several days to make sure that they could get good seats for the big end-season games. Some nights it actually sounded like a riot across the Raritan, and the 2006 success of the team rolled over into a well-attended 2007 season despite a more mediocre record. I’ve never been to a game, nor do I have any plans to do so, but it is surprising how quickly things changed.
This swell of popularity came at a time when severe cuts were beginning to be made to budgets, classes, and staff at Rutgers, the poor state of New Jersey’s finances upping tuition and school fees. According to a letter I received just a few weeks ago my tuition is going to go up another 8.5% this year, making the total astronomically higher than what it cost in 2001. In a gamble to turn against the receding financial tide top administrators decided to expand the football stadium (projected to cost $102 million), using private donations and $73 million in bonds to increase seating and bring in more revenue. Many saw this as a dangerous game, holding off on desperately needed renovations to stake the financial future of the university on football attendance when the team’s past record had been so poor, but despite the protests plans moved ahead.
The project began to stir up controversy again earlier this month when bids to complete the stadium expansion (including new video & sound systems; 13,000 seats; elevators; concession stands; etc.) came in as much as $18,000,000 over budget. A 1,000 seat expansion that will include box seats (which will not be ready for the beginning of the season as promised) will be completed but the larger expansion has quickly become a nightmare, no one seeming to know where the extra money is going to come from. Then the Star Ledger dropped an even bigger bombshell; Rutgers made a secret deal with football coach Greg Schiano that has undercut the integrity of the university.
The big-time expansion of the stadium expansion was set to be finished by 2009, and Rutgers gave Schiano a “secret escape clause” in which he is able to walk away, without penalty, if the university misses the mark. Under the original 10-year contract Schiano would have to pay $500,000 if he walks away early but an amendment to it hidden from the public makes him immune if Rutgers doesn’t finish the project on time. Why did the university do this? To keep Schiano at Rutgers, but this wasn’t the only sweetener secretly added. On top of the staggering $2 million contract Rutgers added $250,000 funneled through a vendor so not to appear on the Rutgers payroll, also known as money laundering. (The chief executive of the vendor stated that the extra cash was not taxpayer money, the money presumably being from private sponsorships.) A group of concerned Rutgers faculty, staff, and students, the Rutgers 1000, also noted that Schiano has been given a blank check for air travel by jet and helicopter, the university of course picking up the tab as fuel costs rise.
Asked about this deception Rutgers president Richard McCormick waffled, stating that he couldn’t recall why telling the truth was more difficult than covering up his covert dealings to appease the football coach. Although McCormick wrote “Beyond the increased charges for students, our entire university community will be called upon to address the significant loss in state support this year,” in the letter that told me I’m going to be paying more this year than ever the football program is not being asked to make such sacrifices. The desire to ride the popularity wave generated by the 2006 season is more important than desperately needed renovations and changes to the university’s academic programs (and all this after a recent reaccreditation board said they had “no recommendations” for improvement at Rutgers).
Rutgers 1000 has raised another interesting question; when was the secret stadium-expansion contract signed? This is important because the administration held public hearings over whether or not to build an expansion earlier this year but if there was a secret contract McCormick might have already been contractually obligated to build, meaning that the public hearings were all for nothing. If this is the case then the administration was listening with deaf ears, disregarding the concerns of the Rutgers community and hiding their true intentions.
Perhaps even more galling is the coach’s reaction to the controversy. A believer in the “chain ‘o command” he simply stated “I don’t worry about that stuff.” Well you should worry Mr. Schiano. You were part of a secret deal that has shocked and disappointed many people, and the most you can say is “I don’t worry about that stuff”? You were given truckloads of extra cash for meeting arbitrary goals like “high ticket sales” during a time when the university is financially collapsing but you sit there acting as if you have earned every penny. Such arrogance is disheartening.
The controversy here isn’t about the amount of money, though. It’s about keeping things secret from taxpayers and students attending the university in a time of financial strain. As a student paying out the nose (and not just that) to attend Rutgers I have a right to know what the university is doing with the money I’m putting into it. Some say that the money for Schiano came from corporate sponsorships and so it is not a public matter, but I disagree. The argument for a bigger football program is that it will bring in money to benefit the rest of the university yet the football program can’t even satisfy it’s own gargantuan appetite. Lecture halls and offices are languishing in a poor state while a coach with an overall losing record is sucking up more and more money. When will the money that comes in from football benefit academics? Will it ever? What if the $102 million (or $120 million) expansion occurs and the crowds stop coming, leaving the university hanging with $72 million+ in loans in a tightening financial state? The university is spending more and getting less, running up a debt that there is no plan to pay off. Surely I’m not the only one who sees this.
There are some big questions left hanging in the air, our cowardly president and administrators lacking to courage to tell us about their plans, problems, and proposed course of action. Will the outrage over this situation turn into anything tangible or just fizzle? With the expansion projections over budget and Schianogate poisoning the well for potential private donors how will Rutgers obtain the $48 million (as of now) to complete the stadium they promised their pet coach? If Schiano leaves or fails to pack ’em in over the next few years will students have to foot the bill for this football folly? The option of taxing students for a bloated football program is on the table, so what will the seemingly inept administration decide to do? How is the academic mission of the university going to be bettered by a money-sucking sports program that has given the university national attention in all the wrong ways? These are disconcerting questions, and I have the feeling that we’re in store for more upsetting answers.