Classroom desks versus premium seats

It is as hard sometimes for reporters to keep apples and oranges separate instead of trying to compare them as equals as it is for the public to do so. The University of Missouri provides an example of that this week.

The Wednesday Kansas City Star tried to make the separation when it headlined the curators’ approval of a $200 million master plan to improve athletic facilities in Columbia, with half of the money being spent on the football stadium overhaul. The Kansas City Sports Trust is giving $30 million and the next $72 million will come from the healthy cost of occupying the new premium seats at the stadium. The article was on page one of the sports section.

In a second-tier story on page A5 was headlined “University slashes budget,” Mara Rose Williams reported the same curators who had approved the new master plan for the athletic department were cutting $35 million dollars’ worth of programs and jobs to balance the University system’s $2.8 billion budget. Some vacant positions will be left vacant. The plan calls for 180 positions to be eliminated. Money will be cut from research, financial aid management, and from so-called auxiliaries–the University of Missouri Press shutdown being the one that has generated the most attention.

Another report was that the University is building a new five-story dormitory to respond to increased student numbers.

Some people will try to connect some dots. A university that is growing so much it needs a big new dormitory is so short of money it is eliminating its publishing arm, cutting positions, and reducing research money also is spending $200 million dollars on sports.

So on one front page the university is going to spend $200 million dollars on sports. On an inside page in another section, the university is going to cut spending and staff.

The newspapers we read yesterday morning that covered the curators meeting did the right thing by separating the sports stories from the academic stories because one is an orange and the other is an apple. The athletic department does not rely on state funding and student tuition. It gets its money from big and little donations, ticket sales, and millions of dollars from selling media rights (Learfield, our parent company, pays millions of dollars a year for rights to broadcast athletic events and to market the athletic events in numerous ways, for example). We’ve been told, in fact, that the athletic department repays the university for the scholarships the student-athletes receive.

The non-athletic part of the university relies on state appropriations, tuition and fees, grants, and donations. State appropriations have provided no relief for several years and in fact have been reduced. The school has worked hard to build its academic endowments and its funds for student aid. But those efforts don’t (a) have the kind of glamour that donations to the athletic department have and therefore don’t generate the headlines those donations generate and (b) keep up with the needs of a four-campus system of almost 75,000 students.

Too bad the University cannot declare some classroom seats to be “premium seats” as the athletic department does with stadium or fieldhouse seats and thereby raise money to keep some programs and staff on hand. But given the increasing tuitions and fees students pay and the debts students run up to sit in those seats, classroom seats are, in effect, “premium seats.” Too bad there’s not a Kansas City Physics Trust that could give $30 million for new physics facilities and similar trusts for other academic parts of the system.

But that’s the way of the world, isn’t it? People who will not donate one dime to their school alumni associations will put out big bucks for season tickets, maybe even invest in the premium seats at a stadium while the real premium seats at a university—those in the classrooms—are filled with people who have to borrow a lot of money to sit in them. That world of public priorities is the world the curators have to deal with. And that’s why they find themselves in the unenviable position of slicing an apple while trying to grow a bigger and better-tasting orange.

So we try to keep the issues and the stories separate, even as we know that news consumers are likely to combine them, even as we try not to combine them in our own minds. Apples. Oranges. Classroom desks. Premium Seats. They’re all part of the inconsistent world we report about.

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