Caboni: ‘Athletics is an important part of the WKU experience’

WKU President Timothy Caboni discussed several issues at the semesterly Herald editorial board meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.

Drake Kizer

While sitting at the head of a semesterly roundtable discussion in the Adams-Whitaker Student Publications Center, WKU President Timothy Caboni appeared calm and collected as he fielded a barrage of questions from the College Heights Herald Editorial Board.

After discussing topics ranging from Greek life to the potential food choices inside the upcoming WKU Commons project, the topic of conversation shifted to intercollegiate athletics at WKU.

In reference to the variety of areas he has to address on a daily basis, Caboni joked, “Now you see what the life of a president is like — it’s like this every 30 minutes!”

The life of WKU’s president hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing lately, and that’s been especially true after the Faculty Senate passed a resolution asking the university to transfer funding from athletics to academics in a meeting conducted on Dec. 12.

Caboni declined to comment on the resolution, instead deferring to a statement from Provost Cheryl Stevens and Susan Howarth, Executive Vice President for Strategy, Operations and Finance, released in the days following the meeting.

“The total college experience at WKU is critical to the university’s recruitment and retention efforts, and athletics are an important part of that work,” a portion of the statement read.

An eight-page report examining the university’s spending on athletics accompanied the Faculty Senate resolution, and it stated WKU athletics is projected to generate $8.8 million in revenue despite being budgeted to spend $22.8 million total during the 2019-20 fiscal year.

The projection leaves athletics with a $14 million shortfall that will be covered by “student fees and a transfer of funds directly from the WKU operating budget to the Athletic Department,” leading to a request of $3.41 million from athletics subsidies for academic college cuts.

WKU athletics would be left with a $10.6 million earmark from the university’s operating budget if the resolution was ever implemented, but Caboni said he’s focused on targeted efforts that will “grow the pie” for every department — not “shifting resources” around.

“I believe in my heart of hearts that we can be excellent at many things,” Caboni said. “Student experience, forensics, student media, football, soccer and anything else you can think of on this campus — dance, theater. We can do all of those things and do all of them well and have resources for everyone.”

LA Tech Sports Report, a fan account for Conference USA member Louisiana Tech, used NCAA financial data published by USA Today to create a graphic analyzing 2018 student athletic fees in C-USA, and the chart was later shared in a tweet was posted on Jan. 15.

According to USA Today data, WKU reported $3.8 million in revenue from student athletics fees in 2018, which prompted WKU athletic director Todd Stewart to tweet that WKU was ranked No. 12 among C-USA schools with a student athletic fee, more than $24 million behind the top school and over 50% lower than each of the top seven earners in the league.

Old Dominion, another C-USA member, hasn’t used any school funds for athletics since a $382 charge in 2012, although student athletic fees accounted for $28 million of its athletics revenue in 2018, which was the highest mark in the league according to USA Today data.

Raising student athletic fees would allow WKU to use less of its general operating budget, but increasing fees to subsidize athletics was mentioned as a concern by the Faculty Senate.

Caboni said a committee is currently evaluating fees, which means the university likely won’t “want to do anything to touch fees” until those results are available. He also said his administration is focused on “affordability” and making sure students can “experience the institution however they want to experience it.”

Accumulating enough resources for all of the different areas that need funding at WKU isn’t an easy process. Caboni said the way to get there is “through recruiting students and retaining students” — two areas where success in athletics could seemingly lend a helping hand.

Stewart has often called athletics the “front porch” of the university, and it’s clear Caboni agrees that WKU athletics can aid recruitment and retention numbers by giving students a positive perception of the university and all of the services it has to offer them.

“Athletics is an important part of the WKU experience,” Caboni said. “Some portion of our undergraduate population comes here because they have an expectation that they’ll be able to go to football games at the caliber at which we compete on the weekends and all of the associated activities with that. Or to see basketball or to watch softball.”

“I think that if we didn’t have Division I sports at the level at which we compete, we would be a very different institution,” Caboni continued. “I think it’s a net very positive for us in the marketplace as we recruit students. Not every student is interested in watching intercollegiate athletics; I understand that. But a large number are, and it’s a differentiator for us.”

{{tncms-inline account=”LA Tech Sports Report” html=”<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">A look at the most recently reported student athletic fees across Conference USA (per USA Today). <a href=""></a></p>— LA Tech Sports Report (@latechsportsrpt) <a href="">January 15, 2020</a></blockquote>” id=”″ type=”twitter”}}

Caboni said institutions able to “transfer dollars from a surplus” created by success in athletics to the university “are very few in number” across Division I, a fact the C-USA Board of Directors Executive Committee member has likely experienced despite his brief tenure in that role.

But to the New Orleans native, who grew up watching SEC football and saw the “important” effect it had on the fabric of his own life, WKU athletics has a “legacy” of success that current students get to enjoy and proud alumni routinely choose to pledge their money to help uphold.

“The number of individuals who make a gift to history and athletics, PBS and athletics, is remarkable,” Caboni said about the university’s multi-year donors. “The bond that people develop — that they retain over a lifetime — because of that athletic experience, I think, is important. It’s important to fundraising; it’s important to the institution. It’s how many people anchor their experiences even long after they’ve left campus.”

Sports Editor Drake Kizer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Drake on Twitter at @drakekizer_.