Legislators refuse to intervene

By Darrell Hassler

At this point, Illinois legislators are reluctant or unable to tinker with the NIU athletic budget.

“You are just better off without having us mess around,” said Sen. Jack Schaffer, R-Crystal Lake. “I think you are better off making those kinds of decisions in-house … rather than asking the governor’s office or the legislature to intervene.”

Schaffer’s comments were a reaction to an investigation by The Northern Star which showed that students paid about $4.2 million, or $210 per student, for athletics last year. The student athletic bill was one of the highest in the nation, a USA Today study showed.

However, at least one senator, a member of the Higher Education Committee, said he is trying to get the state involved in university athletic spending.

Sen. Miguel del Valle, D-Chicago, said he is consistently frustrated when trying to introduce bills controlling athletic budgets.

He said he tried to introduce a bill which would use some athletic money made by the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to keep minorities in school. The bill died in the Higher Education Committee, he said.

Even when universities do make money off of athletics, they use it for athletics and not for academics, del Valle said.

Schaffer, who toured NIU Friday, said the “last thing you want is the legislature and/or the governor’s office trying to micro-manage your university.”

Too much government control could threaten academic freedom and put a burden on legislators who are not experts in higher education, he said.

Del Valle also said he would like to see the higher education committee get more involved in the schools’ budgets. He is working to have universities submit more detailed budgets.

“Oversight (by the state) is minimal as far as I am concerned,” del Valle said.

But the chair of the higher education committee does not think government should be too involved with university budgets.

Sen. Joyce Holmberg, D-Rockford, said her committee deals with athletics from “time to time,” but she said universities have the most control over athletic spending.

“I would think that is something you would want to bring up at your university,” Holmberg said.

NIU officials have justified the athletic spending by saying sports programs here are an integral part of NIU. Officials said the ultimate goal of the program is to become self-supporting through more ticket sales and TV revenue.

Nearly half of the athletic budget comes from tuition. The tuition money pays for coaches and their support staff. The rest comes from the student athletic fee (37 percent) and ticket sales, TV, parking and other sources.

Pressure has already been put on NIU to check its priorities and see where money can be saved. A letter to NIU from the Illinois Board of Higher Education said colleges must “choose to support quality and eliminate less effective programs.”