Athletic Director Sandy Barbour

In a sombre press conference this afternoon, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, Athletic Director Sandy Barbour and Vice-Chancellor Frank Yeary explained their decision to cut five varsity sports: baseball, men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s rugby and women’s lacrosse.

“This is a difficult and painful day for our intercollegiate athletic programs,” Barbour said. “Cal Athletics is not immune to the effects of the recession and the financial realities facing this campus.”

Both Barbour and Birgeneau stressed the university’s commitment to “comprehensive excellence” in all its programs (and the chancellor pointed out that UC Berkeley had been ranked second in the nation for its PhD programs by the National Research Council in a report issued today).

Barbour had been given the task of reducing the university’s support to intercollegiate athletics to around $5 million annually by 2014, Birgeneau said. Barbour said when she first looked at the task, she considered across-the-board cuts and not cutting any teams. “Making sport cuts was the best available option,” she said.

Birgeneau said these cuts were the end of the story: “With this decision, the cutting of teams is over.” Neither Barbour nor Birgeneau offered the prospect of a path back to varsity status for the eliminated teams. Rugby is being given “varsity club” status.

The cuts affect 163 student athletes out of the 814 at Cal. A total of 13 paid coaching positions will be eliminated. The cuts take place after the current academic year.

Both Birgeneau and Barbour emphasized that the university will do what it can to help the affected student athletes. The university will honor current scholarship levels for impacted student athletes, or assist any students who wish to transfer. Student athletes who transfer because their athletic program has been eliminated do not have to sit out a season according to NCAA rules.

In addition to the team cuts, Barbour said her plans also involved other cost reductions, reinvestment for revenue growth where possible, and greater accountability sport by sport.

Following the cuts, Cal will field 24 varsity sports. In the Pac-10, Birgeneau said, only Stanford has more teams. Nationally, only seven public universities will have more teams than Cal.

Birgeneau said the decisions on the athletics budget were an inevitable part of the broader financial restrictions faced by the university. “We certainly needed a more sustainable program, but the financial crisis in California accelerated that,” he said. “The gap was exacerbated by the economic crisis which in turn led to the state’s disinvestment in higher education.

“We could not justify support of intercollegiate athletics at $10, $15 million a year,” he continued. “We just could not do it. I congratulate Sandy in biting the bullet.”

Both the chancellor and Barbour agreed with questioners at the press conference who suggested the decisions taken by Berkeley might be a forerunner of stresses felt in other universities. ” We will begin this conversation [within the Pac-10 and the NCAA],” Birgeneau said. “This so-called intercollegiate arms race is part of the challenge we face.”

“All of intercollegiate athletics needs to take a very hard look at what we’re spending and why,” echoed Barbour.

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...