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UMD renovation funds could be better spent on academics

We feel nothing but pride for our alma mater, the University of Maryland. Terps have raised high the black and gold not just on the field, but in boardrooms, laboratories and in school, too. However, a recent proposal to spend $155 million of state, student and alumni money on renovating Cole Field House into an extravagant indoor and outdoor athletic practice facility threatens to stymie our progress in boosting excellence in academics and affordability. We urge the Board of Regents to reject

We feel nothing but pride for our alma mater, the University of Maryland. Terps have raised high the black and gold not just on the field, but in boardrooms, laboratories and in school, too. However, a recent proposal to spend $155 million of state, student and alumni money on renovating Cole Field House into an extravagant indoor and outdoor athletic practice facility threatens to stymie our progress in boosting excellence in academics and affordability. We urge the Board of Regents to reject this misguided use of state and university resources. Here's why:

First, building the new practice facility would amount to a broken promise. President Wallace Loh's Commission on UMD and Big Ten Integration wrote: "Facilities needs, including practice fields, an indoor practice facility and a Varsity Team House, should be viewed as capital expenses and should not be financed with revenues from the Big Ten." This is now not the case, with $25 million of the total funding coming from Big Ten revenue. This is particularly disappointing considering that the commission envisioned Big Ten revenue being directed to the fiscal stability of our athletics department, need-based financial aid and improving the academic support for our student-athletes.

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More importantly, we ask whether the $155 million expenditure on athletics (because that's what it really is, despite a worthwhile "innovations" center for entrepreneurship tacked on that we believe could — and should — exist separately) moves the university in the right direction. A 2010 report by the Knight Commission, co-chaired by University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan, states that the "financial arms race threatens the continued viability of athletics programs and the integrity of our universities." We are proud that we can support our Terps on the field or on the court, but what about in the library or the classroom? Budgets reflect priorities. We expect limited resources to go to academic affordability and excellence over just another win or two during the football season.

The effects of the athletics financial arms race have already come to a head at Maryland. In 2012, UMD cut seven sports programs, eliminating opportunities for more than 130 Terps to compete at the highest levels of NCAA athletics. Years of extravagant spending on athletics capital projects underlies this tragic decision.

The $50 million in state and university funds dedicated to this project could better support the university's strategic goals if allocated elsewhere. While our students face paralyzing student debt, Maryland's need-based financial aid remains lackluster. Just 6 percent of Maryland's higher education budget goes to need-based aid; for Pennsylvania and New Jersey it's 25 percent and 18 percent respectively. The $25 million in Big Ten revenues could be targeted strategically toward "near-completers" who right now cannot afford the last few credits they need to finish their degrees. We should be more focused on competing with Rutgers and Penn State in affordability and academic quality than on the football field.

We also desperately need renovations to our crumbling academic buildings. The university constantly lobbies the regents and state legislators for funding to address what they call the "Invisible Crisis." These archaic facilities present a challenge to retaining the phenomenal professors who make UMD a world-class research university and do not provide students with the technology to succeed in the 21st century. The $25 million in state capital funding would go a long way toward preventing threats to research and quality of education.

It is especially concerning that the university wants to begin construction with well over half of the project unfunded. According to The Baltimore Sun donors have pledged $45 million to the project, with $50 million still unaccounted for. This means that the university will have to divert the generosity of our wealthiest donors from scholarships and academic facilities to this project. Should fundraising efforts fail, it is possible that the state could be on the hook for the balance — increasing the commitment from the public up to a potential $100 million.

We understand that there are wealthy donors and powerful alumni who brought this proposal forward. But the university must ultimately be accountable to the people of Maryland over merely those who write big checks. University leaders often talk about how UMD is more than just athletics, that it is fundamentally about academics. It is high time to back up that rhetoric with action. We urge the Board of Regents to do the right thing and reject this proposal.

Zachary Cohen was president of the University System of Maryland Student Council in 2012-2013 and can be reached at zbcohen@umd.edu. Steven Hershkowitz was the student member of the Board of Regents in 2012-2013 and can be reached at shershko@umd.edu. Kaiyi Xie was UMD student body president in 2011-2012 and a member of the commission that recommended cutting sports programs in 2012; he can be reached at kxie@law.upenn.edu.

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