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Question raised at BSU legislative forum: What is the value of intercollegiate athletics?

MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER Minnesota Reps. Roger Erickson, House Majority Leader Erin Murphy and Rep. John Persell held a roundtable discussion with Bemidji State University faculty and students Wednesday morning. A focus point was increased funding statewide of $250 million, which allows for a two-year tuition freeze.

BEMIDJI -- A Bemidji State University professor on Wednesday asked state legislators to consider the role of intercollegiate athletics in today's economy and society.

Marty Wolf, a computer science professor at BSU, quoted a December article in this newspaper which reported that institutional support for BSU athletics -- funds directed to athletics from student tuition and state funding -- was expected to eclipse $3.8 million in 2012-13.

"I think it's time to actually raise the question of how intercollegiate athletics adds value to the student body at large, their education," Wolf said.

Wolf's comments came during a one-hour forum with House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, and state Reps. Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette, and John Persell, DFL-Bemidji. The forum, held before about 40 BSU students and faculty members in the university's Crying Wolf Room, was focused on legislative issues related to higher education.

Wolf said that same $3.8 million in institutional support could have covered the cost of salaries lost through "recalibration," a 2011 plan from BSU President Richard Hanson that addressed a

$5 million budget shortfall by reducing 30 staff positions between BSU and Northwest Technical College.

"It raises that question of what is the role of intercollegiate athletics in this sort of economy, this sort of society, and in particular, when we've got so many of our students being online students," Wolf said. "I think what I'd like is hopefully for you and the Legislature to start having that conversation about what we value in higher education and what should be funded by tuition and the state taxpayers."

Persell said it was a fair question. As the son of a 40-year music teacher, he said he often heard that question, "Why can't the marching band get new uniforms when the football teams just got some?"

"There's a lot of that going around, it's been going around for decades," Persell said.

Still, Persell said he played athletics himself, enjoyed them and finds them beneficial to the human experience and university life. He continues to attend BSU hockey games.

"It's a fair point. Let us go back and think about it a little bit," he said. "I don't have a good answer for you, I really don't."

Erickson said you could extend the question beyond just athletics.

"Why do we need the band and the choir?" he said.

Wolf responded that those activities are at least located within the educational mission of the university.

"Really I ask two things, one that conversation (begins), and two, an accounting, how pervasive is this within the system? How much are we as taxpayers funding intercollegiate athletics?" Wolf said.

"You're the second person today who brought that up to me," Persell said.

Tuition freeze, efficiencies

Wolf comments followed earlier statements from Bill Maki, BSU's vice president of finance and administration, about the need to focus on efforts related to student success.

Maki opened his comments by thanking legislators for their work during the last legislative session, when they increased funding to higher education by $250 million, the first such funding increase in eight years, which resulted in a two-year tuition freeze for in-state public college and university students.

Additionally, Maki said, he appreciated the extra investment into state grants, which drives down costs for students.

"We're very appreciative of that," Maki said. "We're also committed locally to bringing that cost down to our students through scholarships."

Maki also took the opportunity to lobby for approval of a BSU bonding request that would allow for better campus alignment and efficiency.

BSU plans to relocate its College of Business and student services, now located in Decker Hall on the residential side of campus, into an expanded and renovated Memorial Hall.

Student services would then move from Sanford Hall — set to be demolished — into a remodeled Decker Hall.

The project is ranked third on the MnSCU priorities list for consideration and Maki said its cost, estimated at $12 million, may seem high, but it will result in a more efficient university, thus bringing down costs for its operation.

"Which, also over the long term, has an impact on our costs, which has an impact on our tuition rates," he said.