Public Comment

Commentary: Chasing the Football Dollar Sidelines Education and Threatens Public Safety

By Hank Gehman
Tuesday January 30, 2007

EDITOR’S NOTE:This commentary was originally submitted to the Daily Californian in response to an editorial in that paper. The Daily Cal has not published it. 


Your Dec. 8 editorial calls for Cal students to support the construction of the new weight room and training facilities at the Memorial Stadium known as the SAHPC.The basic premise of your editorial is that having a big-time football program would improve the education that undergraduate students receive at Cal. A successful football team, you claim, will help Cal compete educationally against Stanford and the Ivies and make Cal an “academic destination.” Really? I think that when UC administrators hype educational synergies of football, they are just blowing smoke to hide the fact that all of the SCIP project is driven by money for privatization. 

In 1981 the Ivy League decided to deemphasize football and dropped down from Division I-A to Division I-AA. They even banned all post season play. As for Stanford, they are no longer competitive in Division I-A. It’s not a question of stadiums or even coaches. Stanford would have to lower its academic standards for the “near-professional” football player to survive there. These schools—which Cal clams to be competing against—have put academics before football. But when the football coach is the most important person at the university, you can be assured that the quality of the educational product will be out of the limelight and will suffer for it. 

You claim that a Cal education has already achieved “preeminence” and that a big-time football program (isn’t Cal good enough already?) is the last piece of the puzzle needed to raise UC Berkeley to the very pinnacle of American universities. But is the educational experience at Cal truly “preeminent”? The Ivy League schools emphasize small classes and direct, professor-to-student intellectual contact for all four years. My school, Columbia, has a really tough and wide-ranging required core curriculum for the first two years. Can Cal students really say that they’ve been pushed to their maximum for four years? A high rating in a magazine may be comforting but is a bad measure of the quality of the education. Graduate admissions officers know the pecking order. When a Cal diploma is a fast track to graduate school like my Columbia diploma was, then you know that you are competitive. I’m not trying to run down Cal but to point out that there’s lots of room for improvement. When a school starts to put such an emphasis on football, it is diverted from critically evaluating its educational product and investing the resources needed to constantly renovate and improve it. This is what will raise the bar at Cal. 

Your paper also contends that the future of UC Berkeley—a public institution—depends on its private endowment and that football is crucial to building the endowment. The endowments of Stanford and the Ivies are racing forward without successful football programs. Their Alumni are giving as a way to pay back for the education they received and not as a reward for winning football games. Accepting the Schwarzenegger program of state funding cuts and moving to privatization is driving UC away from its educational mission. Students are the big losers in this process. They get annual tuition and fee hikes and reduced attention to their education. The winners? UC administrators. For them, “being competitive” is a code phrase to justify their huge pay and benefit increases. Over the past two years they have diverted hundreds of millions of dollars away from educational improvements and into their own pockets. Unfazed by the pay scandals, UC continues to equate competitiveness with salary levels. But where are the new educational programs? There is no reason to expect that these priorities will change in the future. Undergraduate education does not produce a profit and by the financial logic of privatization will be left to wither on the vine. 

Your paper supports the massive construction projects planned for the Hayward Fault as important for public safety. I disagree. No responsible institution would try to build so much on an earthquake fault. The first principle of earthquake safety (and the law) calls for keeping people away from these dangerous locations. However, instead of reducing the usage at the Hayward Fault, the university is planning to congregate over a million spectators a year at the stadium with big rock concerts and other events. Further threatening the public safety, UC is downplaying and hiding the seismic risks at Memorial Stadium. In the upcoming earthquake, any gym or stadium built on the fault will have fatal structural damage and—as UC itself predicts—there will be death and injury. It is true that the people working at the stadium now are in immediate danger and the university should have long ago moved them away from the stadium. Instead, they keep them there-in violation of UC’s SAFER guidelines- and use them as an argument for SAHPC. The fact is, no one can safely occupy the SAHPC until it is completed and the western half of the stadium is rebuilt and stabilized-which would be years from now—if ever. Administrators are hell-bent to build the SAHPC along the west wall of the stadium because this massive, concrete bunker is needed to hold back the loose fill under the stadium (identified by the USGS as a liquefaction zone). The gym is actually the first phase of a new stadium’s foundation. The safety justification is a red herring to cloud the connection between the SAHPC and a new stadium. 

A new training facility could be more quickly constructed at one of a couple of excellent on-campus locations. It would be safer, in compliance with the law, a good deal cheaper and more accessible to non-football athletes. Also, it would be a better facility. Siting the SAHPC at the length of the stadium western wall forces a narrow, problematic, “railroad car” layout with no direct access to the stadium and would hardly be a state-of -the-art design. The problem with any alternative location, of course, is that a gym built there would not support the new stadium. 

And then, there is the question of the safety of Berkeley residents. This is a massive project that will greatly complicate rescue efforts in the surrounding residential neighborhoods and tie up much of the city’s rescue capabilities. When the earthquake comes, with its accompanying fires and landslides, the SCIP projects will end up endangering the lives and property of these people. Your editorial makes no mention of these safety ramifications. The university administrators, however, are well aware of these problems. But, because of a constitutional provision intended to protect UC academic freedom, UC says that it is not required to consider the safety and welfare of Berkeley citizens and so it won’t. That is morally unconscionable but not surprising coming from an institution that has grown arrogant and greedy, free of normal checks and balances. Everyone’s safety—student and resident- is important. 

The SAHPC is a bad project and should not be built. Under a cloud of football frenzy, UC administrators are desperately rushing to start the SAHPC gym to create “facts on the ground” and short-circuit any further criticism. Only after the SAHPC is stopped will everyone have a chance to openly and honestly examine all the alternatives to SCIP. A self-serving UC has shown that it cannot be entrusted with the public safety. 


Hank Gehman is a former Ivy football player and Cal graduate student.