Eddie Church, Jack Shaw and Joel Campbell are members of Sunrise Movement KU, a climate-focused political group. The op-ed below does not necessarily reflect the views of the University Daily Kansan and its members.
Claiming it will bolster the football program and drive economic growth, the University of Kansas has announced dramatic renovations to David Booth Memorial Stadium, but is a flashier facility really what the University and the Lawrence community need?
On Oct. 7, 2022, KU Athletics announced via Twitter post that the stadium would be undergoing a transformation. At the time, there was no mention of the project’s price, timeline or source of funding. The University’s Athletic Director, Travis Goff, promised that the project would immensely benefit not only the football program but “the entire university and regional economy.” We have since learned that the stadium improvements are meant to break ground later this year and will cost the University around $330 million.
Prior to KU Athletics finalizing the decisions, neither the residents of the neighborhood surrounding the stadium nor University students were consulted.
Details about the planning process of this disruptive project will not be released to the public, as contracts with vendors were made through the University’s fundraising company, KU Endowment. As a private company, KU Endowment is financially separate from the University and is therefore not beholden to the Kansas Open Records Act, unlike the University.
This huge cost comes at a time when many other parts of the University’s campus are suffering from a lack of attention. Many of our buildings are old and outdated, with inefficient heating and cooling powered by coal and gas.
A recent COACHE survey showed that the University’s faculty is largely unhappy with the current administration, frustrated with the level of benefits and compensation provided, and are overall less satisfied working for the University than faculty at our peer institutions.
Funding for sustainability has dwindled, with the Center for Sustainability being reduced from four full-time staff to one part-time staff member over just the past few years. The Pell Advantage Grant, a need-based scholarship that has helped many students afford the cost of tuition, was also eliminated recently.
Last year, members of the Sunrise Movement met with several staff members from the grounds, facilities, and the Chancellor’s office, all of whom said they lacked funding to make the changes they wanted to. One staff member mentioned that there was a $20 million university-wide deficit due to the effects of COVID-19 that budgeters had to contend with.
Interestingly, money does not seem to be this tight for the athletics department, which is receiving $50 million in public funds and fundraising support from KU Endowment to cover a portion of the hundreds of millions more that the project requires.
The University likely sees this as an investment opportunity, but it’s not a good one. Stadiums and convention centers have been historically bad investments, with centers around the country consistently failing to meet their goals for economic benefit.
With bigger, more accessible convention centers in downtown Kansas City, it seems unlikely that the stadium’s exorbitant face-lift will attract enough outside interest to live up to the University’s expectations.
Chancellor Doug Girod has told the Lawrence Times that the renovations will “generate revenue for academic programming [and] drive economic growth in the region.” But why does the money have to be funneled through the football program before the students and Lawrence residents see any potential benefit from it? Why does the community have to put up with neighborhood disruptions from construction and increased traffic for an uncertain economic outcome that, more likely than not, will fall flat of what is expected?
Although the project has been referred to as something to benefit the community, money is being funneled to something that students still need to pay to experience. The “club seats, loge seats and ledge suites” that were promised in the renovation aren’t financially attainable to the vast majority of the people of Lawrence, much less the average college student.
Property values are already increasing in the neighborhood around the stadium, which will undoubtedly increase rent and push out students and Lawrencians who currently live in the area. The substantial cost of new sewer lines, new utility lines and road construction in the area will likely fall to the Lawrence city government, funneling even more tax dollars into the stadium.
The group that will benefit most from this project isn’t students or community members, but the few wealthy people closely affiliated with the University — those who can afford VIP tickets and those with real estate investments in the area.
For years, students and Lawrence residents have watched the University pour money into the football program’s pockets while seeing little to no benefit from it. It’s time we stop putting our money into spectacle and begin addressing the needs of our community.