SOUTHWEST LOUISIANA (KPLC) - While the "Pay to Play' report indicated McNeese representatives declined comment to WVUE, McNeese spokeswoman Candace Townsend did accept KPLC's invitation to do so. Here's what she had to say, in her own words:
On the overall report:
"They're not taking into consideration when they look at the increase in the athletic budget, and also say the increase in athletic salaries, is that there is quite a bit of money that has been donated by private donors and through private fundraisers to augment coaches' salaries. That's not money that comes from the university, but by law, that private money has to run through the university to come back to those coaches and their paychecks. So, it has to be accounted for. It has to be counted towards taxes and those sorts of things. But that's private donor money."
On Philip Williams' statement saying percentages can be highly misleading:
Townsend: "One thing with percentages, alright, if you're looking at, if you're trying to take a percentage where you're taking, say for example, you're going to say that you've increased, let's say you've increased the College of Liberal Arts faculty by, say, 50 percent, and you've only increased the College of Engineering faculty by 25 percent. Well, if the College of Liberal Arts only had two people in it, and you added one, and the College of Engineering may have had a hundred people in it, and you added one, it's not the same percentage, so you've got to look at the bottom line of the whole. And the athletic budget as a total is a much smaller number than the overall McNeese State University budget. So, when you start talking about percentages of, say, a $60 million budget or percentages of, say, let's say a $10 million budget, those are gonna be much different numbers."
On how McNeese declined an on-camera interview for this report:
"When I was originally contacted by the producer, he was trying to set up some times when they could come from New Orleans to Lake Charles to interview Dr. Williams, and the first couple of dates they threw out were not working for us. We tried to get back in touch and do some things, and the next thing I heard was when they sent an email saying that they were putting this together and did we want to respond via statement, which certainly we did respond via statement."
Regarding a state lawmaker in 2007 saying casino money was to be allocated toward education, but the report says about $800,000 was spent on athletics:
"Well…OK…riverboat money, or the head tax as it used to be called, is dedicated to one-time sources, one-time money. It cannot be spent on things that are recurring. Now, in a particular year, riverboat money, or head tax money, some of that was transferred into the athletic department budget. But within the same time period, you have to understand that tuition within the time period they're looking at at McNeese has gone up over 110 percent. In fall of 2009, tuition was a little over $1,700. In fall of 2015, tuition was $3,600. And that's what Dr. Williams was saying in his statement is that the majority of the money that the university transfers to athletics is to cover student athlete scholarships. And then that money is returned to the university when they pay their tuition and fees or when they pay their room and board. So, it's money that if you look at purely the revenue side of athletics, athletics is going to show that student athlete scholarship money as a revenue source. Just like they show sponsorship money, just like they show private donations, just like they show ticket sales. That's a revenue source, but then student athletes pay their tuition and fees back into the university.
KPLC: Did you respond to a very specific set of questions or just send a blanket statement? Were you given a specific list of questions they wanted answered?
Townsend: "As I recall, he did send us a list of questions, yes."
KPLC: Were those questions answered?
Townsend: "I felt as though the questions were answered, yes."
KPLC: Has the number of athletic employees increased in recent years despite these budget constraints McNeese is facing?
Townsend: "I know that the report shows that we have a slight increase in the number of athletic employees, and we've also had an overall decrease for the university in this time period of over 200 employees. But one thing that's critical, though, on the academic side as compared to the, or the university side, as compared to the athletic side…on the athletic side you have to remember that the NCAA has certain requirement that make men's and women's sports equitable concerning the number of coaches that they have to have. There has to be an equality there. You can't have a large number of coaches for men's sports and then cut your women's coaches in half. They mandate that equality, whereas on the university side, particularly in the support staff, we can eliminate and not replace 3 or 4 positions and then either use student workers for some clerical duties, or divide the duties up of those employees, from maybe 3 or 4 people leaving, you divide that among 1 or 2 people. I'm doing several other jobs myself right now. There's some things you can do on the academic and the support staff side that you can't do for other rules and regulations on the athletic side. We've lost…we offered 2 faculty retirement incentive programs in an attempt to reduce our overall budget because we were taking such a big hit in our reduction in state appropriations. We were trying to find ways to become more efficient and reduce our expenses. So we had a number of faculty, tenured faculty that were retirement eligible, making very high salaries that opted for retirement. Some of those people were replaced but perhaps at a lower salary, and others of them may not have been replaced, and we're covering those classes with either part-time visiting lecturers, or those classes may be covered by a dean now instead of a full-time faculty member.
KPLC: To say that the school is pumping more money into athletics - is that something that you consider a misleading statement?
Townsend:"Well, I can't say that the statement is completely misleading because with the increased cost of tuition, of scholarships, yes, more money is going there. Also our cost of student athletes' health services and medical care has gone up. Just like healthcare costs have gone up everywhere. And those are things that the university is required to take care of. Do I say that we're sending more money to athletics and it is directly hurting the university? No, I can't say that because some of the money that is going into athletics, such as tuitions and fees and scholarships comes directly back. Money that student athletes get as part of their scholarship package for room and board comes back into the university when they live on campus and they have their meal plans."
KPLC: Several other college presidents did respond, a couple declined, but several did respond to take part in this report. They were given the same deadline to reply, but Dr. Williams couldn't find the time, therefore that was perceived as a decline to comment?
Townsend: "There are only two college presidents in this report that were actually interviewed on campus – the president at Northwestern and the president at Nicholls. They did not interview the president at UL Lafayette. They did not interview the president at Tech. They did not interview the president at Grambling."
KPLC: Well, they tried to interview the other presidents and they, too, either couldn't find the time or declined.
Townsend: "Well, I can't answer of what the situation was, but you have to understand too, you're in the news business, and I'm in the university business, our schedules don't always mesh. And just as I said, we're down 200 employees. I can't always meet the needs of the media either. And there are times when I just have to say I'm sorry, I'm not available today, I can't do that today. So the insinuation that we weren't trying to be available is incorrect. I think that truly it's a matter of we cannot always be available on the media's time schedule.
"Let me just tell you another thing. Something else that they're not taking into consideration when they look at the increase in the athletic budget and also the increase in athletic salaries is that there is quite a bit of money that has been donated by private donors and through private fundraisers to augment coaches' salaries. That's not money that comes from the university, but by law, that private money has to run through the university to come back to those coaches and their paychecks. So it has to be accounted for. It has to be counted towards taxes and those sorts of things. But that's private donor money. For example, Coach Guidry. Coach Guidry's salary, Lance Guidry football coach's salary, is higher than what Matt Viator's salary was, but yet the university's part of his salary is the same as it was for Matt Viator. Any increase has come from private donors.
KPLC: What is your response to a college president who was interviewed for this report saying 'I'm sorry, I told the athletic director you're going to have to do more with less.' Your response to that in a time of such a budget crisis?
Townsend:"Well, I think we have done more with less. And we've asked our athletics department to do more with less, and that's part of the reason why their revenue has increased, and they have a bigger budget to spend, is because they have gone out and they've done private fundraising. They've gone out and they found sponsorships. And that's part of what that increase is about also. So, what you're not seeing on the university's side is the amount of money that our private McNeese Foundation has raised that they give back to the university to help faculty, to help with equipment, to help with university needs, and also more importantly, to help students to meet that gap with what they don't get from perhaps their TOPS, that they can give them private donor scholarships to help them pay their tuition and reduce their student loan debt."
KPLC: Do you know what that amount was last year?
Townsend: The McNeese Foundation gives the university more than a million dollars a year to help with student scholarships. And that doesn't include the money that comes from our McNeese Alumni Association that they also give in terms of scholarships and they also give in terms of money to the university to help with needs such as faculty that need a computer, faculty that need lab equipment, faculty that need supplies. Our supply equipment budgets have been absolutely slashed to the bone. I mean some of us are buying our own copy paper. So it's not a matter of…it's not a matter of everybody trying to, you know, not do more with less, or everyone is doing more with less, and the athletic department is under the same restrictions. We're not giving the athletic department any more money than what we can do under law. And in some cases, the reason they do have more money to spend is because it's private donor money. It's self-generated funds that they've raised, just as we've had to raise student tuition and fees over 110 percent since 2008 to cover the $20 million loss in state appropriations that we've had. So, it's all relevant when you get into it. It's very, very complicated information, and when you start looking at different spreadsheets, and you try and look at different universities and compare things, everybody does things differently."
KPLC: A lot of people are going to watch this and question priorities….where the priorities lie. Your response to those people who will raise an eyebrow and say 'hmmm…they're always talking about how they're hurting and how they (the state) need to stop the cuts, and Dr. Williams goes on KPLC this week and talks about how this has to stop…your response to the people who might question where the priorities lie?
Townsend: "Well, I think that our priorities are always gonna be on academics. It's always gonna be on classroom instruction. I mean, we've made that very, very clear. I mean, I think you can ask support staff that, of the people that are doing 2 and 3 jobs that don't have any administrative assistance support or now that you had maybe an office of 5 people, and now you have 2 people. Everybody can say that the focus has been on academics because we always know that whatever money is there to replace positions, it's going to be faculty positions that come first. Always. The critical need faculty positions are always going to come first. And athletics, what I would say about athletic spending is athletics is a tremendous part of the university operation. I think folks in Southwest Louisiana would agree that there would be an absolute outcry if there was anything that said that we were going to get rid of athletics at McNeese. And when you do that, you affect the overall recruiting for the university. Because surprisingly, there are a lot of students that tell us in their incoming student surveys that they came to McNeese because of athletics. They came to McNeese because they're playing in the band. We wouldn't have a marching band if we didn't have athletics. There are a number of things that athletics does for Southwest Louisiana that, just the economy, just when we have people coming in from other cities to come to our games here, they're spending money in Southwest Louisiana. So athletics…athletics…yes, does it cost money to have an athletics program? Absolutely. But athletics also brings a lot to the table in terms of visibility and also in terms of economic income for the area."