In spite of all the government bailouts, 2009 may well be remembered as the year of widespread layoffs and cutbacks. Few businesses, including area colleges, are recession proof.
Cutting positions is never easy; nor should it be. Being an administrator is challenging under the best of circumstances, but when the economy goes in the tank, it becomes especially difficult.
I can’t speak with certainty to the wisdom or lack thereof concerning the recent budget decisions at Tabor College, but I know it has resulted in a renewed debate about the balance of academics and athletics. From what I know, athletics was largely spared from deep cuts. Other areas were not as fortunate. Following those administrative decisions, emotions ran high for some students, faculty and staff.
The fact is academics and athletics are both important windows to Tabor and its constituency. Were the proposed cuts fair? Very likely not from the vantage point of the programs and departments that took the deepest cuts. The more important question is, were they wise? That is hard to judge without an intimate knowledge of all the options available.
Were some cuts necessary? Finally, an easy question—absolutely yes.
One major benefit of attending a small college is the opportunity to participate in multiple activities. For example, when I attended Tabor I was able to participate in drama and athletics simultaneously. It was an extremely enjoyable and memorable experience. The baseball coach probably thought there was always too much drama in games that I pitched, but I also had the opportunity to be part of a legitimate, on-stage drama production.
This year a large percentage of Tabor students are involved in athletics, music or both. Consider that 318 degree-seeking students, or 65 percent of the student body, participate in athletics. And 122 students, 25 percent of the student body, participate in fine arts. About 30 students participate in athletics and fine arts.
Without all of these students, it’s hard to imagine how Tabor could exist. It is safe to assume that a significant number chose Tabor, based at least in part, on the availability of those athletic or musical activities.
Granted, athletic programs at small colleges don’t generate substantial ticket revenue, but the cash flow of tuition from all those additional students has been acknowledged to be crucial by numerous small-college presidents.
The intangible positive vibes that result from having a successful, healthy athletic program also has to be factored in.
Tabor alumni and others were justifiably proud when Tabor was winning KCAC football championships not that long ago.
It may well be that Tabor offers more sports than it can afford. The dilemma is that while you could cut softball and baseball to maintain Title IX balance without many ripple effects, you wouldn’t save much money. Dropping football isn’t an option if Tabor wants to remain in the KCAC, and while the cost of paying a coaching staff and equipment is significant, so too is the potential benefit to the college if there’s a squad of 90 to 100 student-athletes.
It’s also true that coaches do more than coach. They recruit, raise money to help offset costs and more.
Football isn’t the only sport that has increased the cost of athletics. There are seven women’s sports, all of them new in the past 40 years.
Try telling the more than 130 current young women student-athletes, former players or their families that you think it would be a good idea to turn back the clock.
Of course, music and drama professors, and probably most faculty, do more than their written job description. There’s no shortage of dedicated, hard-working and underpaid faculty and staff at Tabor.
To some extent, music is intertwined with athletics. The band adds atmosphere, enthusiasm and excitement to football and basketball games.
One former small-college basketball player told me it was a blast playing games at Tabor because the pep band was so good.
That wasn’t always the case. I remember when Norm Holmskog was the men’s basketball coach in the early 1970s and the pep band sat in the bleachers behind Tabor’s bench. After one particularly slow and lackluster song, Holmskog turned to the band and basically said, “Don’t you have any music more lively? We’re not going to a funeral you know.”
The timing of the new football and track facility isn’t ideal, but that’s not Tabor’s fault, nor does it strike to the heart of the current budget cuts. There’s no turning back on this much-needed project that benefits Tabor and USD 410.
The good news for Tabor is that so many people, both inside and outside its walls, care passionately about its future. The bad news is that asking questions and having an open dialogue on these issues can be uncomfortable.
And more good news is that the debate is evidence that the college is succeeding in its efforts to train students to think and ask legitimate questions.
The debate over the role of academics and athletics is bigger than Tabor College. But it’s a debate that Tabor, like other colleges, will continually have to address.