UC Berkeley chancellor proposes taking on some Cal Athletics debt in exchange for developing on Edwards Stadium

Ana Isabel Diaz/Staff

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Big changes could be on their way for Cal Athletics — and for UC Berkeley’s budget.

At a Thursday meeting of the campus Academic Senate, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ proposed the campus take on the portion of Cal Athletics’ debt stemming from the seismic retrofitting costs of the 2012 renovation of California Memorial Stadium. In exchange, Cal Athletics would let the campus develop on Edwards Stadium, currently home of the soccer and track and field programs.

Christ said she made the decision “in principle,” and that specifics had not yet been ironed out, such as how much of the debt is related to seismic retrofitting and what would happen to the programs that currently use Edwards Stadium.

Cal Athletics has run large deficits in recent years, requiring two consecutive bailouts from the chancellor’s office in the past two fiscal years. Christ insisted that the department must balance its budget by 2020, despite Cal Athletics’ debt service payments continually rising in coming years.

“Many of us, including me, wish the campus had made different decisions about the football stadium when the decision was made to renovate it. But right now, we have that debt,” Christ said at the meeting. “It’s as if, I don’t know, one of your children made an extraordinarily unwise expense. There’s no way that you aren’t obligated to pay that expense.”

Cal Athletics holds more than $400 million in debt, the most of any athletic department in the country, almost entirely from the renovation and seismic retrofitting of the football stadium and construction of an adjacent athletics complex.

Moving the debt onto the campus’s books is only one of many proposed changes the athletic department is facing. Cutting teams, shrinking rosters and selling beer at football games are on the table to close Cal Athletics’ deficit. In an August budget proposal, the campus suggested turning Edwards Stadium into housing.

“The opportunity to do something with that big, large piece of land is a huge plus,” said Robert Powell, professor of political science, in an interview after the Academic Senate meeting. Powell previously served as co-chair of the Chancellor’s Task Force on Intercollegiate Athletics.

All of UC Berkeley has been pressed to cut costs and raise revenues as Christ tries to get the campus back in the black. At the meeting, Christ announced that as of the close of fiscal year 2017, the campus’s deficit was $77 million, down from $150 million the year before.

Moving some of Cal Athletics’ debt onto the campus’s books, if implemented, would only change where the debt service payments are located, Powell said. The cuts will still have to be made somewhere, he added.

“That’s just moving deck chairs around the Titanic,” said John Wilton, former campus vice chancellor for administration and finance, of a potential debt transfer in a recent interview with The Daily Californian. As vice chancellor for administration and finance, Wilton oversaw the creation of a new funding model for California Memorial Stadium.

“The university is no better off,” Wilton added. “It makes not one cent difference.”

Staff writer Revati Thatte contributed to this report.

Austin Weinstein covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @austwein.