Tapping faculty and students to finance rec facility projects may take a political toll.
Bill Gutzke works out in his basement these days, pumping the cement-filled plastic weights accumulated over the years and left behind by his grown sons. "I've got to do something, because I'm at the age where if I don't use it, I'm going to lose it," says the 50-year-old University of Memphis biology professor.
While maintaining his own private exercise regimen, Gutzke nonetheless misses the collegiality he once enjoyed when visiting the university's Student Recreation and Fitness Center, using its equipment and participating in the volleyball, softball and flag football programs offered through the facility. He still takes pride in having been named the outstanding male athlete for 1989 of an intramural league of faculty, staff and students.
But a dozen years later, Gutzke, the UM Faculty Senate president, finds himself in the middle of a Senate-endorsed boycott of the facility and its annual faculty/staff membership fee, which for some university employees tripled from $40 to $120 after an $8.8 million rec-center renovation was completed last February. The boycott, which began Sept. 1, is based as much on principle as finances, according to Gutzke, who claims university administrators never sought faculty opinion on the renovation project. "It's real personal for me," he says. "I used the facility the first 13 years that I was here. All of a sudden they just came out and announced, 'You will pay this or you can't use the facility.'"
University recreation officials, meanwhile, are trying not to take the boycott personally. "From talking to people on campus, the boycott is not necessarily completely aimed at us," says Jane Orcholski, program coordinator for campus recreation. "Parking fees were raised this past semester, and insurance fees are going up. I think our fee sort of was the last straw, so they decided to make a point with us."
At least two of these faculty bones of contention are connected, says Gutzke, who claims employee health-care costs have risen 6 percent despite providing scaled-back coverage. "It makes no sense to me," he says. "You would think the university would really want all of us to go over there, work out as much as possible and stay in shape, because it really is going to cost them less in the long run on health care."
It's no secret that state-of-the-art recreation facilities and programming cost money, but colleges and universities everywhere are faced with paying a political toll when creating or increasing faculty and student fees in accordance with facility renovation projects or new construction. The University of Ottawa, for example, has been subject to student complaints regarding the $243 (Canadian) membership fee required to gain eight months of access to the school's new $21 million sports complex, which opened its doors Sept. 25 and includes an 8,000-squarefoot fitness center, two squash courts and two ice rinks. Students still have the option of using an existing campus recreation facility for $100 per academic year, but it is considered by many students to be inadequate and overcrowded.
"With the construction of the new facility, one would expect a moderate increase in membership fees," wrote Nick Ariss, a social science major at the university, in a letter to The Ottawa Citizen. "But a near-threefold increase is outrageous." And students aren't the only group whose dollars are being channeled toward the new facility's mortgage payment. According to Jennifer Brenning, coordinator of programs and services for the university's sports services department, the complex's fitness center is open to the public (at a 12-month membership rate of $480), and one of its ice pads is primarily reserved for corporate league rentals. Office space is being leased to the Canadian Hockey Association and to the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union, and a 5,000-square-foot space will one day accommodate a restaurant/bar.
So how does Brenning justify the student membership fee, which is in addition to a $144 fee already paid by each student to subsidize the university's sports services department? "The facility itself," she says without hesitation. "It's got all of the latest and greatest."
Brenning adds that the fitness marketplace in which the campus facility is located further justifies the fee. "We've done a market analysis of what other fitness centers around this region are charging, and we're very competitive," she says. "We've actually discounted the rate that we're charging the external community for our students by 35 percent."
Not good enough, according to Stacey Favor, a University of Ottawa psychology major who notes Canadian universities such as Western Ontario and Waterloo - which charge tuition comparable to Ottawa's-don't require any extra fees to use campus sports facilities. She also points out that tuition, books, rent and other expenses are often paid by students themselves with part-time jobs.
Even though the sports complex membership "does not seem like so much in itself," Favor wrote the Citizen, "when looking at all the other costs a student might incur, that extra money would make a considerable difference."
Like their counterparts in Ottawa, recreation officials at the University of Memphis also justify their fee structure based on how it compares to other fitness options in the area. Jim Vest, campus recreation services director, calls the $7.50-per-month faculty membership fee ($10 for families) a "measly" amount to pay for access to the renovated center, which now includes an aerobics studio, a cardio area, three new gymnasiums, expanded free-weight and circuittraining areas, and a reconfigured spa area with a sauna, steam room and whirlpool adjacent to the renovated indoor and outdoor pools. In addition, the center allows only members who are in some way affiliated with the university, making it the exclusive domain of students, faculty, staff and their immediate families. "We said, 'Hey, if you can find a better facility anywhere, please go to it,' " says Vest. "I mean, I'm behind them 100 percent."
Even Gutzke, who has cased out the finished facility, says he'd be hardpressed to find a better deal elsewhere. "Although it was functional before, it's a lot prettier and nicer now, no doubt about it," he admits. "But the point we're trying to make is that this facility was being built whether any faculty or staff member ever showed up there. Why should we have to pay a premium price? If every faculty member here joined, we still wouldn't make a significant contribution to the total cost of this thing."
Faculty memberships will help shoulder the greater maintenance burden of a facility that houses more than $200,000 of new equipment and offers expanded hours and services, such as aerobics classes. The facility is also air conditioned for the first time in its 30-year existence. Students, meanwhile, are paying an additional fee toward reconciling the renovation debt, though Vest can't say how many years that will take. Making the faculty financial stake in the facility equal to that of the students was only fair, he says. "What we tried to do was keep the fee close to what the students were paying," says Vest. "That was the whole idea behind why it went up as much as it did."
Whether the faculty boycott has carried much weight at the University of Memphis depends on who you ask. "We're at approximately 70 percent of the same number of faculty we had previously," says Vest, "and I assume that number would even grow, simply because once the warm weather comes, a lot of people will be going to the pool."
Gutzke sees it differently. "I would say more than 90 percent of the tenured and tenure-track faculty are not using the recreation center at this time," he says. "It was never used by all the faculty, even when it cost only $40, because a lot of people have a problem with having to pay to use a facility that's on the same campus on which they work."
Vest says the percentage may never max out, because some faculty members choose instead to join private health clubs closer to their homes. Conversely, even if the boycott achieved 100 percent allegiance among faculty, it still would flex little political muscle in the eyes of rec-center officials. "Our number-one patron is the student anyway; it's the Student Recreation and Fitness Center," says Orcholski. "We have plenty of students coming, so if no faculty and staff came we would still chug along and have our programs."
In the meantime, Gutzke vows to stay true to his commitments-the faculty boycott and his own basement workout routine. It remains unclear, though, how many other UM faculty and staff will exhibit similar discipline. "We want to use the facility," Gutzke says. "It's just a matter now of principle. We weren't treated properly at all."