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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

On Gift Horses and Trojan Horses: The Proposed Aquatics Center

By Celeste Langan

On Sunday, April 7, 2013, the Daily Californian ran a story with the headline, “Campus announces plans to construct new aquatics center.”  It’s unclear from the story just when this announcement might be said to have taken place, since a public hearing on the proposal was held in Berkeley on April 3.  Presumably at least those who organized the meeting knew of the proposal in advance.  Still, it’s fair to say that the proposal came as a complete surprise to most of the Daily Cal’s readership—that is to say, faculty, staff, and students.  An announcement has yet to appear in the Berkeleyan or on the UC Berkeley website.

We’re told by Intercollegiate Athletics that the proposed Aquatics Center, to be built on what’s currently a parking lot adjacent to the Tang Student Health Center, is an “extremely generous” proposal on the part of private donors (referred to as “Cal Aquatic Legends”), who have engaged to raise all necessary money.  We’re told that Berkeley’s pool facilities pale in comparison with Stanford’s, and that the pool facilities we have are too crowded.  Forced to share Spieker Pool with other students, faculty, and community members, the swimmers and divers who compete for Berkeley on an intercollegiate level can only practice at certain times, which limits their opportunity to elect certain major fields of study. 

Why should we look this gift horse in the mouth?

With the new Aquatics Center, intercollegiate athletes would no longer have to share.  We’re told that the proposed new facility would be for the exclusive use of intercollegiate athletes and certain illustrious alumni.  Thus the proposal is parallel in concept to the recently completed High Performance Athletic Center near Memorial Stadium and Memorial Grove.  When that project was first proposed, the Cal community was also promised that it would be funded entirely through private donations; in 2006, we were told that $90 million was “in the bank.”  We know now that only $29 million was raised through private donations.  Instead, the University is in debt for that facility alone (not counting Memorial Stadium) to the tune of $124 million.

It’s probably true that better facilities and resources aid performance.  But shouldn’t we be applying that principle first to the 99% of Berkeley students who are not intercollegiate athletes, and to the object of academic performance?  Instead, a valuable public resource (the land granted to the university to educate California’s citizens) would be diverted to serve the interests of only a few.  Even if the construction costs of the proposed Aquatics Center are entirely covered by private donations, the plans for the building effectively monopolize that space, excluding 99% of the Berkeley community from its usufruct.

Wherever we turn today, we read that the “bricks and mortar” university is no longer viable; that it’s too costly and denies access to high-quality education.  At Berkeley we’re all too familiar with the crumbling of bricks and mortar; after nearly every winter rainstorm one can find pieces of mortar or peeling paint, along with puddles, in some of the campus’ most historic buildings, including the hallways and locker rooms of Hearst Gymnasium, the poor but beautiful elder sister of the Spieker complex.  Faculty try to teach and conduct research in deteriorating classrooms and laboratories. Donors, we are told, have no interest in funding the repair of existing facilities, in upgrading and greening the heating and plumbing systems.  And the state’s declining support for the UC system makes even everyday maintenance a financial challenge.  To respond to these challenges, the administration tries to find ways to cut costs—diminished library hours, fewer books bought, class enrollments capped to accommodate available classroom space and diminished numbers of ladder-rank faculty.

In this context, it’s not just the prospect of turning a parking lot into an athletic facility that galls.  It’s the fact that the new facility will be for the exclusive use of a small number of intercollegiate athletes, some of whom already receive support in the form of athletic scholarships.  The rest of the student body, as well as the faculty and the community, will still have access to existing facilities.  But what’s to guarantee that “access” will actually be any more extensive?  Where is the plan to provide more hours for recreational swimming, to pay for the requisite lifeguards and staff? Will the “Aquatic Legends” continue to foot the bill for the new Center’s operating costs, or will the University now have to divert some of the funds dedicated to Spieker and Hearst (to say nothing of classroom maintenance) to pay for heat, light, and staff at the Aquatics Center? 

It’s true that the Aquatics Center is planned for a space that’s currently a parking lot—hardly an inspired use of precious space (unless one considers the disinvestment in public transportation, which makes it difficult for many students, faculty, and staff who live far from BART to get to campus except by car).  But it’s not as if the University has worked with Alameda County to improve bus service, or on its own to develop a shuttle service, despite the fact that available parking for faculty, staff, and students has been seriously diminished by recent UCB building projects.  Moreover, the Environmental Impact Report filed for the Aquatics Center acknowledges that the project “conflicts with the existing applicable land use plan” as laid out in both the 2020 Long Range Development Plan and the South Side Plan.

Consider what’s happening here.  It’s a perfect case of what’s called “the privatization of public resources.”  Often “privatization” is represented as a benefit, the assumption being that “private enterprise” operates more efficiently than public entities, which serve a larger constituency, and often conform to a greater number of regulations.  (Kind of like the difference between a car and a bus.) But we need to remember to ask who benefits from these supposed efficiencies.  In the case of the Aquatics Center, UC Berkeley would be ceding land use—granted by the state for the benefit of all Californians—to a tiny fraction of athletes.  Given past history, it is likely that students and taxpayers would end up financing a good portion of the costs. 

And what of the net psychic costs?  Although universities are imperfect institutions, traversed by all the economic, social, and cultural inequalities of their historical moment, they also have their utopian aspect:  the “oneness” implicit in the name; the sense that the accumulated resources of a university, intellectual and physical, are shared my all members of its community.  That’s why a university’s libraries, grounds, and buildings—its “bricks and mortar”—are still important, because they provide a space for the exchange of knowledge as a common good, and remind us that education is, at its best, a res publica, a public thing. 

We should therefore ask the Administration to halt planning/construction on the Aquatics Center until they demonstrate to the public and formally to the Senate that it is a) actually, truly fully paid for by donors, and b) that it is a good use of collective public University resources at the present time, given that it will be used by a small fraction of the UCB community for a nonacademic mission.


Mike said...

Meanwhile, at UC Davis, the administration abruptly shut down the Men's swimming program (along with a couple of other sports), citing budget concerns. (Nice write up in the UC Davis Aggie newspaper: http://www.theaggie.org/2013/04/18/trajectories-change-in-aftermath-of-athletic-cuts/). When students and alumni rallied to try to save the program, they were told that they would need to privately raise an endowment that would cover the complete expenses of the program ($10+ million) in a matter of weeks. This in the wake of the expensive and contentious "upgrade" of Davis athletics to Division I status, including numerous large facilities projects and a major swimming complex. Even after the men's swimming and diving program was cancelled, the complex has remained closed to use by the regular student body. It is one of several white elephants spawned by the campus's misguided sports master plan.

While I'm not strongly pro or contra continuing the UCD swim team, the actions here suggest a pattern of extracting sacrifices from some parts of campus (non-athletic programs and minor sports teams alike) to protect other parts. Though often justified using talk of budgetary constraints, the reality is that this is matter of priorities for the administration. The UCD athletic budget deficit has doubled since the first round of closures, suggesting that the real problem is with the marquee programs and not with the various scapegoats sacrificed to protect them.

Overall, the trend seems to be away from support for broad-based student participation in sports (the old non-scholarship model at UCD) towards massive subsidies for high-profile sports, presumably in the blind hope that success in those sports will be a marketing boon for the UC and maybe, in a Cinderella season, even break even as a financial proposition. This seems like folly even for the wealthier UC campuses (Berkeley and UCLA); for the others it is an especially perverse misuse of resources.

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