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Dissatisfied with athletic facilities, UB students propose higher recreation fee

Joseph T. Pace enjoys playing basketball at the Triple Gym inside the University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena, and on a campus of nearly 30,000 students, it’s not hard to find others wanting to play. The problem is getting an open court.

“There might be 100 people standing there waiting to play basketball. It’s crazy,” said Pace, a senior engineering student from Clarence. “Yes, there are facilities, but the facilities are not anywhere near enough to meet the demand that exists on campus.”

The reason: Undergraduate athletics and recreation fees now are used almost exclusively for Division I athletes, not students at large.

And that is why Pace was among three Student Association officers who recently wrote a letter asking UB President Satish K. Tripathi to implement a new recreation fee that would cost students an additional $131 per semester.

“Over and over we’ve heard people say they just weren’t satisfied with recreation on campus,” said association President Minahil Khan. “Students wanted more out of their recreation fee.”

Each undergraduate student currently pays $267 in fees each semester for athletics and recreation. Ninety-two percent of that amount, $246, benefits about 535 student-athletes through UB’s Division I athletics budget.

The remainder – 8 percent, or $21 – funds recreational programs on campus for thousands of students.

And many students have complained of poorly maintained outdoor fields, inadequate fitness equipment, paying additional fees to participate in intramural sports and an overall lack of recreational space, said Khan, who also signed the letter to Tripathi.

The student leaders propose splitting the fee: one for athletics, another for recreation. Under the student plan, the athletics fee for each student would be $240 and the recreation fee would be $158.

“People are OK with paying more when it’s something they actually see a tangible benefit from,” Pace said. “We’re already paying so much for things we don’t use.”

Looking for balance

Student leaders want the additional money for a new North Campus recreation center within three years and to renovate facilities on South Campus immediately.

They also want the recreation fees to be administered by the university’s Student Affairs office, rather than the athletics department. The proposed changes would help balance what many students see as inequitable support for intercollegiate athletics over recreation, Pace said.

The three other State University of New York centers – Stony Brook University, the University at Albany and Binghamton University, all of which also offer Division I athletics – already have in place fee structures that differentiate between an athletics fee and a recreation fee. This year, Stony Brook charged a $270 per semester athletics fee and an $82 per semester recreation fee. Albany charged $280 per semester for athletics and $101 for recreation.

UB officials acknowledge the need for improved and additional recreational space on both the North and South campuses. A 2014 consultant’s report recommended that UB build a new $83 million recreational center on North Campus and spend $16 million on renovations to recreational space inside Clark Hall on South Campus.

With state capital projects money tight, the projects do not appear to be high on the list of university priorities. Critics also say that higher education institutions spend too much on elaborate residence halls, dining facilities and recreational centers that are tangential to teaching and research and drive up college costs.

But UB student leaders are prodding administrators to move ahead with the upgrades. Despite a 25 percent increase in tuition and fees at UB over the past five years, those leaders say they and their fellow students are willing to spend more for the improvements.

Administration view

University officials said they want to improve recreational options for students, but are mindful of the costs, especially as the university tries to move ahead with expensive construction work on academic buildings.

“We can’t take from other programs for this,” said Dennis R. Black, vice president for university life and services at UB.

Several public universities have constructed new recreational facilities in recent years. The University of Iowa spent $53 million in 2010 for a 215,000-square-foot center that includes two swimming pools, a jogging track and basketball and volleyball courts. Stony Brook University’s $33 million recreation facility opened in 2012, featuring a three-court gym, fitness studios, a track and locker rooms. The University of Louisville and Auburn University also opened new facilities in 2013.

Black said recreational upgrades, including a new recreational center on North Campus, are part of UB’s strategic plan, “Realizing UB 2020.”

The plan calls for a 250,000-square-foot recreation and wellness center near the edge of Lake LaSalle, with basketball, racquetball and squash courts, an indoor turf field, weight and fitness room, and bowling alley.

“It’s among the projects we’re plugging away at,” Black said. “We certainly agree with the students that recreation is important.”

Black said the student proposal of splitting the athletics and recreation fee into two – as has happened at other SUNY campuses – has “tremendous validity” to it.

If the student plan were to go forward, current students, except maybe freshmen, would unlikely see the benefits of paying an additional fee. But Khan and Pace said students have been calling for a new recreation center for more than a decade.

“We really are behind the times,” Pace said.

He noted that 72 percent of students surveyed in the 2014 consultant’s report supported a fee of $129 to $165 per semester to pay for recreational enhancements at UB.

Not all students are on board, though. The consultant’s report included more than 100 comments from students opposed to implementing an additional fee.