Close your eyes for a moment and imagine what you would do with seventy-five million dollars. Better yet, close your eyes again and imagine how much suffering, how much disease, how much poverty and homelessness, how much gross inequality, that seventy-five million dollars might relieve.
Now open your eyes and go take a look at WVU’s Milan Puskar Football Stadium. Because that’s where– with the recent approval of the WVU Board of Governors– those $75 million are about to go.
Now you don’t have to be much of a retrograde, or even a girlie-man, to think that seventy-five million dollars is a pretty penny for a University that could easily improve the sorry conditions of adjunct professors, devote more money to the Arts and Humanities, reduce the cost of medical spending, or provide more financial assistance for underprivileged students to spend on a football stadium that already more than adequately holds over 60,000 mostly well-endowed, big spending, fans.
But to argue such a thing, I’ve come to realize, particularly in a state like West Virginia, is to present yourself as downright un-American. Nonetheless, when I read about the proposed expenditure the other week, I got a bad, though highly inflated, case of déja-vu.
In the year of my very first full-time paying job, as a $6,000-a-year high school German teacher in Upstate New York, the public high school I taught as was on a severe austerity budget: Not only were there no books for students, no Xerox paper for teachers, no chalk or erasers for blackboards, but– on certain occasions– school hours themselves were cut to save on utilities and other costs.
But the good citizens of Vestal, New York, ever devoted to the welfare of their children, pitched together to try and remedy this disastrous situation. And pitch together they did, raising $25,000– the equivalent of $164,119 in present-day currency– to do the thing they most felt their high school needed: re-sod the football field.
And so, as the French say, le plus ça change… the more things change. And I suppose it’s also about time to fuss up to the fact that I must be possessed of old-fashioned, if not Neanderthal, values. I have to admit that I hold to the now antiquated belief that universities are for education, not sports; that the most important people on a university campus are the students, not the football players, and that the main purpose of large amounts of spare change is to do things for those who need it most, and have it least. None of which allows for spending $75 million on a football stadium that is more or less fine as it is.
It will, of course, be argued that the money being spent on renovating the football stadium doesn’t derive from the same sources as money spent on more traditional educational purposes. But that misses the point, the point being that it is not so much where money comes from as how it is spent that truly testifies to our deepest values. And money, in the end, is a zero-sum game: What is spent, or donated, in one arena, quite simply, will not be spent or donated in another.
For myself, much as I love teaching at WVU, I’d be much prouder of the university that pays my bills if it had a slightly less state of the art football stadium and provided more scholarships for the law and medical students who graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of debts and thus feel the need to charge massive fees with which to repay them. I, and I suspect many others in this state, would happily trade a less comfortable seat at the game for a clearer conscience when I sleep.
Writer Michael Blumenthal lives in Morgantown where he is a visiting professor of law at West Virginia University.