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Decision to cut UA skiing raises questions

  • Author: Grant Yutrzenka
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 29, 2016
  • Published October 29, 2016

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen has requested a waiver from the NCAA that, if granted, would lead to the elimination of the men’s and women’s ski teams at UAA and UAF, as well as the elimination of UAA’s men’s and women’s indoor track teams. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

As an alumnus of UAA and former nordic ski racer and runner for the university, I am saddened to read and hear that the ski programs are being eliminated at both Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses.  However as an Alaskan, I'm not so sure this isn't the right thing to do.

When talks of cuts began there was a small rally by former skiers.  I was on the fringe of the discussions and voiced to a few my concerns about the benefits to the state in having the ski program. I asked questions such as what is the historical average grade point average (GPA) of a skier, the historical graduation rate, the rate of those who stay in the state upon completion, and maybe more importantly, how they compared to other athletic programs.

It seems the data is not available or those that may have it may have chosen not to reveal it for whatever reasons.  The bigger picture in my mind is what criteria did UA President Jim Johnsen use to determine the ski and indoor track programs should be eliminated instead of other athletic programs or all athletic programs?

I am curious as to the benefit to the state of having any athletic programs at all.  Do the GPAs of other students increase because of sports?  Do more students that are non-athletes attend the UA system because there are athletes?  How do these athletes contribute to the state following graduation?  Is the UA system's reputation higher because of athletic programs?

Stated differently, what is the return on investment that Alaska receives by investing in athletic programs? With oil production taxes way down compared to just a few years ago, changes need to be made and scrutiny should be applied to all spending.  When we invest, it's fair to ask for our expected and actual rates of return.  Those who can't answer those questions  shouldn't expect to continue receiving the money.

I suspect that those in the athletic program's administration or within the ski programs could not answer those questions effectively and therefore should not have been surprised that the programs were cut. Can any of the other athletic programs answer those questions?  If not, then shouldn't they all face being eliminated?

So, how did skiing and running get singled out?  Was it really a fiscal and pragmatic decision or simply political favors and expediency?  If there is a positive rate of return to having hockey, volleyball,  basketball teams and the other programs whose actual cost (even including the income from gate receipts) are much higher than skiing and running – then shouldn't  we continue to invest in all?

I suspect there is not a positive rate in actual or secondary effect (increased campus atmosphere, quality of life for the community, encouragement to the youth, etc.).  If the Board of Regents cannot articulate in clear, objective language the benefits to all Alaskans of these programs, then shouldn't all intercollegiate sports be eliminated throughout the UA system?

I am all for sports and activities in general.  For our youth, sports can encourage a healthy lifestyle and teach teamwork, hard work to achieve a goal, how to win and how to lose.  All good life lessons.  I understand that cuts may need to be made. However let's be sure we're using the same criteria when evaluating which athletic programs should be cut so we make the best choices for Alaska, and not just the right choice for a few privileged individuals.

Grant Yutrzenka is a graduate of the University of Alaska Anchorage where he was an NCAA All-American nordic skier and a runner.