Lieberman: $68 million football facility only a symptom of larger institutional woes

When it comes to collegiate athletic facilities, there is luxurious, there is five-star and then there is the University of Oregon.

This isn’t breaking news — Oregon’s Nike-fueled expansion started over 14 years ago, when the football team unveiled the west coast’s first collegiate indoor practice football field. The growth continued with a $227-million basketball arena and a $42-million academic center created exclusively for Oregon student-athletes.

Yet last week, Oregon’s rapid development reached lavish new heights when the Register-Guard broke details of plans for new $68 million football facility slated to open in fall 2013. Construction for the arena has been underway for months.

The list of plush amenities is almost too long to comprehend. Among the more notable features are nine dedicated classrooms (one for each key position on the football team), two movie theaters,@@can I watch Dark Knight Rises [email protected]@ an advanced video center, a Duck football museum and a 2,285-square-foot players lounge and deck.

The news made some Ducks fans rejoice, while others involved with the University weren’t quite as pleased.

The controversy surrounding the structure took a turn when the Register-Guard’s initial assertion that head coach Chip Kelly would have a private hot tub equipped with video equipment — an opulent detail that grabbed several national headlines — proved to be somewhat misguided.

Regardless of minutia, Oregon’s spending spree has sparked multiple debates on campus about financial support for educational programs. And while I sympathize with some of the professors and students dealing with subpar facilites, I believe the athletic department’s lavish surroundings simply exemplify a problem plaguing entire public institutions across the country. Like the football team, Oregon’s College of BusinessSchool of Journalism and Communication, and Law programs enjoy facilites that are a cut above the rest of the campus as a result of wealthy and generous alumni. But anyone who finds themselves vehemently against such improvements to the campus are short-sighted and fail to recognize the effect they have on Oregon’s image and the foundations behind those striking differences.

One key subject matter is the cost of upkeep and operations. University economics professor Bill Harbaugh told the Register-Guard that Nike founder Phil Knight, who has leased chunks of campus before and built the majority of the properties before donating them in full to the school, saddled Oregon’s budget by giving administrators specific procedures on how to run the facilities. At the Jaqua Center, for example, tutors, improvements and other day-to-day costs are compensated on the University’s dime.

“Phil Knight specified the number of employees, the number of tutors, their educational qualifications, how many computers would be available, how often the computers would be replaced — down to the smallest detail, really, of what a high-class facility it would be,” Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh’s point is a valid one, and well-informed. Yet what he and many other people seem to discount is the significant exposure the entire University enjoys through success in athletics and prominent educational programs that attract talent with their top-shelf amenities. Knight earned a business administration degree in 1959 while running track and also inking a few articles for a certain student paper, lest you forget. The economy may not reward achievement equally, but the programs that can attract financial support from those they served deserve to reap the benefits, whether or not that helps all departments equally.

Every time an Oregon sport finds itself in the media — in print, online or on a television or mobile device — the result is nearly impossible to quantify. In households around the U.S. and abroad, a middle-sized state school registers on the rader of hundeds of thousands of people who would never give Eugene a second thought otherwise. In the past decade-plus, Oregon has seen its prospects are a respected educational institute and a national power in athletics flourish. Top facilities attract top recruits on the field and in the classroom.

It’s fair to contrast a $68-million dollar palace with some of campus’ more run-down structures — doing so can easily invoke disgust. What such a perspective doesn’t capture is the impressions made by Ducks gear begin worn by fans across the country.

As a 22-year-old Portland native, I’ve seen Oregon’s rise up close and personal. I watched the school’s image evolve from the days of Joey Harrington all the way to its first Rose Bowl in 95 years. All I can say is that it’s impossible to put a number on what the athletic department has done for Oregon’s perception in the public sphere.

I ask that those who detest the athletic department’s excessive resources to stroll through campus with a watchful eye. You’ll see that even in harsh economic conditions, there are other offenders who enjoy significantly better financial support than the programs that feel like Oregon’s forgotten stepchildren.

I can’t say that such a disparity reflects the values our University stands for. At the same time, I can’t deny the forces behind the uneven backing are largely out of our control.

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