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Port: Football championships haven't done much to help NDSU's bottom line

If football championships bring revenues and enrollment, then why is NDSU, with nine national championships since 2011 under its belt, finding itself in a financial quagmire? NDSU is a very strong academic institution. We should stop treating it like a host body for a football team.

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North Dakota State University logo
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MINOT, N.D. — Big-time collegiate athletics programs, like the football team at North Dakota State University, are a drain on university resources. They inflate the cost of attendance and the cost of public institutions to taxpayers. Yet the defenders of these programs insist they are a boon to the universities that host them.

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North Dakota State University President David Cook delivers his State of the University address during his inauguration as NDSU’s 15th president Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

They're good marketing, we're told.

High-profile sports programs are the "front porch" of the university, enhancing alumni support and bolstering student recruitment efforts, we're supposed to believe.

And yet, at NDSU, enrollment has been in decline, to the point where university President David Cook is now sounding the alarms of a budget crisis , and it's happening despite the NDSU football team winning nine national championships since 2011.

We have to ask: If football championships bring revenues and enrollment, then why is NDSU finding itself in a financial quagmire?

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Don't blame state lawmakers. Per state budget data , over the last three biennia, since the 2017-19 biennium, lawmakers have increased funding by almost $10 million, or more than 7%.

Granted, that's not a big increase, and it's probably flat once we consider the impacts of inflation and the pandemic, but it's not like the state has been cutting NDSU's budget. In fact, NDSU's appropriations increase is about double the rate of growth in appropriations to the entire North Dakota University System.

Also, per legislative data , NDSU is forecasted to see a more than $113 million decline in revenues (dollars from tuition, etc.) from the previous biennium.

And remember, these increases in appropriations happened even as NDSU was educating fewer students, but charging them more.

The resident tuition rate at North Dakota's two research institutions is, per Legislative Council data , up more than 26% since the 2017-18 school year. Fall enrollment, per NDSU's own data , is down more than 15%.

That includes a more than 1.7% decline in fall enrollment year-over-year. NDSU is actually under-performing the rest of the North Dakota University System which just today announced a system-wide 0.4% increase in fall enrollment.

North Dakota's taxpayers are spending more money on NDSU to educate fewer students.

North Dakota's students are paying NDSU a lot more for tuition to attend.

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Yet, per President Cook, the university is facing a $10.5 million budget shortfall .

Meanwhile, this summer, NDSU was touting a new $50 million practice facility for the football team. And, yes, that facility is being built with private donations and corporate sponsorships, yet the optics of a public university floundering to find the money for its academic mission while awash in cash for the football team should make honest observers of this situation feel uneasy.

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It also doesn't look great that Cook's predecessor, the football-obsessed Dean Bresciani, is currently enjoying a golden parachute that includes a year-long paid sabbatical (he'll continue to receive his $377,000 per-year president's salary through at least the end of December) before beginning in the fall semester of 2023, a tenured professorship during which he'll teach a class about being a university president.

Something I'm sure most NDSU students will find very useful.

I hope you can detect the sarcasm in that sentence because I'm laying it on pretty thick.

What should NDSU do about this budget shortfall? It's tough to ask lawmakers to appropriate more dollars to an institution that is serving fewer people. The students, amid a national student loan debt crisis, shouldn't be asked to pay more either.

What NDSU should do is reprioritize. They need to shift resources toward the core mission of the university — the one that serves the most students, and the one the university was founded to pursue — which is academics and research.

It's time for big-time football, and sports in general, to take a back seat so that this university can focus on educating students and advancing quality research. NDSU is a very strong academic institution. We should stop treating it like a host body for a football team.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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