The UTSA community was up in arms over the weekend following a highly controversial student body referendum called to increase student tuition fees allocated to the athletics program was defeated in record fashion. With over 6,100 ballots submitted, the hotly-debated proposal led to the largest turnout for a student body vote in the university’s history.
Just 23.3% of voters sided with increasing the athletics fee and removing the current 12 credit hour cap on the athletics fee, further penalizing students that take a heavy course load. An attached proposal on increasing student fees for transportation was also handily defeated, with only 30.1% of voters approving a $9 per semester increase in transportation fees which would have expanded campus shuttle routes.
While supporters of the proposed initiative have proclaimed that the vote results indicate an uncooperative student body that does not appreciate competitive athletic programs, I believe the truth is more complex than the cut-and-dry takeaway being offered by those who were in support of the fee increase.
The rejection of an increase in athletics fees mirrors a nation-wide trend. To draw a comparison to another university with the state of Texas, only 38% of student voters at SFA supported instituting an athletics fee when the campus brought up a vote in 2016. Washington State’s student body opted to revoke a referendum that would have replaced the university’s athletics services and activities fees with a mandatory annual fee of $265 after the student body voiced extreme outrage at the shocking sticker price. Kansas University’s Student Senate voted to completely eliminate their student fee for athletics in 2014.
While there have been successful athletic fee initiatives at universities around the country in recent years, the overall trend does seem to indicate that students are becoming increasingly cautious with their tuition dollars. With cumulative student loan debt increasing from $260 billion to $1.4 trillion from 2004 to 2017 and the average student loan debt rising from $18,650 to $38,000 over those 13 years it’s no wonder that students across the country are seeking to combat rapidly-increasing tuition costs.
I don’t think that UTSA, SFA, Kansas, or Washington State students are particularly opposed to supporting their university’s athletics programs across the board but the days of athletic programs receiving blank checks from their student bodies are dying if they’re not already dead.
Conceptually speaking, I could see UTSA students coming out in droves to support temporary increases to their student fees that were specifically earmarked to fund an on-campus football stadium or basketball arena. Touting the potential of a new major stadium or arena hosting mid-to-large scale touring musical acts could also entice non-sports fans to come out to vote. Having a clear, tangible benefit in hand to offer can drive a willingness to increase fees. That's a common sense praxis across all forms of politics, not just at the student government level. After all, the student body did rally around vastly increasing their student fees to jump start the football program back in 2007.
This most recent vote was a much tougher sell than the 2007 vote though. The 2018 proposal was an ambiguous, unimaginative, and unambitious mess with zero marketing behind it up until the week of the vote. UTSA’s athletics' marketing and outreach ahead of the vote was so minimal that it begs the question of whether or not the silent approach was an intentional tactic to minimize voting turnout so that only the most rabid of athletics supporters would log on to vote.
Ahead of the 2007 vote the Student Government Association hosted open forums with the athletics department to discuss the implications of the vote and how the additional revenue would be utilized. As far as I’m aware, none of that happened ahead of this vote. It seems as though the athletics department felt like they could increase their revenue simply by sticking their hand out like a child begging their parent for a quarter to use at a gumball machine.
Confusion ran amok in the days leading up to the opening of the polls. Students fled to social media in an attempt to learn more about the referendum but answers were hard to find. A common misconception voiced by UTSA students was that the fee increase would directly subsidize coaches’ salaries which was not true — only internal athletics revenue is used to pay salaries.
The student-specific benefits listed on the FAQ website UTSA athletics created are laughably poor:
- Participation in on field/court promotional giveaways
- $2.50 Round-trip Transportation to Alamodome (Free for Rowdy Crew ORANGE members)
- 10% off Concessions at Alamodome during UTSA home football games
- Premium Seating
- T-Shirt giveaways/Free Pizza at select events
- Rally Towels, Thunder Sticks, Mini Basketballs, Special Themed Posters (Star Wars)
Anyone expecting a college student that’s already facing over $40,000 in student loan debt upon graduation to agree to tack on about $150 to that total in exchange for a Star Wars poster is, quite frankly, out of their mind.
While the proposal’s failure is undeniably a gigantic speed bump for UTSA athletics, it may be the last remnant of a string of timid decisions and inaction that have plagued the athletics department over the past few years. This proposal was an initiative spearheaded by former school president Ricardo Romo and former athletic director Lynn Hickey. UTSA’s new leadership should have a great opportunity to learn from the mistakes of this failure and move forward in the hopes of building a healthy union between the athletics department and the student body.