SALT LAKE CITY — A decision by Utah Utes basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak and the school's athletic director to cancel the team's contracted game with the BYU Cougars next season prompted state legislators to recommend an audit into the University of Utah's athletic department.

But it also triggered a wave of other questions lawmakers say they have been trying to answer during the past month: What level of oversight should the Legislature take when it comes to college and university athletics? How should public institutions balance athletics with academics? Where do priorities lie for campus leaders?

"They're all funded by taxpayer money," Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said last week. "Consequently, we have a responsibility as a Legislature to make sure that all systems of government are running in a way that's ethical and legal and they have proper financial controls. So an audit is very appropriate."

Niederhauser was one of four members of the Legislative Audit Subcommittee who voted unanimously on Feb. 1 to prioritize the "efficiency and effectiveness" audit for the university's athletics department. The other voting members included House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper; Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City; and House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City.

While the scope of the audit was left intentionally broad, Niederhauser said its origins were largely tied to Krystkowiak's decision in early January.

"I couldn't speak for my colleagues on the audit subcommittee. For me, though, the purpose of auditing the athletic department of the University of Utah was brought to my attention by the controversy that was around playing BYU in this situation," he said. "I'm not necessarily as a Legislature wanting to get involved in deciding what teams play what, but we would encourage our universities to play each other."

Despite requests from constituents, the Legislature has not voted to change state law forcing the two teams — one public, the other private — to play.

In a prepared statement, University of Utah Athletics Director Chris Hill said the university plans to follow recommendations from the Legislature.

"Our role is not to be concerned with why an audit is coming in, just to provide the information," Hill said. "When recommendations are made, it's our job to get better. We want to be a good representative of the university, and we are committed to transparency."

Krystkowiak said the schedule change was needed as a "cooling-off period" for rivalry emotions escalating toward "potential for serious injury." At a Feb. 23 news conference, he was asked if he had any comment pertaining to the audit:

"No. I sure don't. Nope."

Balancing priorities

Some lawmakers fear the decision and the outcry it brought reflect a larger problem in Utah's university system — that the primary purpose of higher education in the state is being overshadowed by other priorities.

"I worry that athletics takes a superior position to academics," said Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton.

Three days after the audit was recommended, McCay and other members of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee posed their concerns to University of Utah President David Pershing.

"I'd hate for our athletic programs to be a distraction like they have been this last year, especially most recently over some of the antics of your athletic director, as well as your basketball coach," McCay said. "When they say things like 'why should the Legislature's opinion matter to us,' I hope you will correct them that it matters because we care about these things."

Pershing acknowledged the unease from legislators and reassured them that the vision of institution leaders hasn't changed.

"What really is on my mind," Pershing said, "is academics. And sometimes things happen, and I apologize for that, where it seems like we're really worrying too much about athletics. But I want to assure you, the University of Utah focuses on healthcare and academics."

David Buhler, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, said education leaders recognize the need for balance in governing academics and athletics as separate priorities. But there are factors of athletics that benefit students in academic realms, he said, such as scholarships, alumni involvement and campus atmosphere.

"I think our presidents do it very well," Buhler said. "Academics comes first, I think, for every president in our system. And even with student athletes, academics is very important."

Legislators have commended university leaders on rising graduation rates for Utah's college students. Completion rates at the university reached 62 percent in 2014, up 7 percent from 2011. Those rates for the state overall also increased from 38 percent to 41 percent in the same time period.

Still, fewer than half of Utah's college students graduate within six years of enrolling, and improving the odds of their long-term success will be determined by attention to an academic mission, according to Rep. Jon Stanard, R-St. George.

"Although athletics gets a lot of attention, citizens enjoy it and they get very passionate about it, it doesn't provide them a job," Stanard said. "So we need to not lose the focus of the true priorities."

Legislative purview

Lawmakers this month have stressed public contributions, especially those from students, as a major reason for wanting an in-depth look at university athletics programs in the state.

In the 2014-15 academic year, direct state tax dollars made up less than 1 percent of the total athletic expenditures at the university, which totaled $62.7 million, according to the Utah System of Higher Education.

State contributions to athletics was much higher at other institutions, ranging from 6.4 percent at Salt Lake Community College to 54.8 percent at Snow College.

But of the $56.4 million in total athletics revenue at the University of Utah, 17.5 percent of it came from a combination of student fees, tuition, state funding, and other sources of direct and indirect support, according to a report released last summer by the Utah State Auditor.

On average, each student at the university paid $334 in athletics fees in 2014. That amount is among the lowest in the state, but it was spread over almost 29,500 students, nearly 10,000 more than Utah State University, the next-largest institution.

Students at other institutions paid anywhere from $99 at Salt Lake Community College to $1,165 at Southern Utah University in athletics subsidies, according to the July report.

"Everybody wants to talk about our athletic programs being self-sustaining. The truth is they really aren't," McCay said. "Student fees is a substantial portion of every athletic program. I think the students, as well, deserve a certain level of comfort that their money's being spent the right way."

While McCay didn't request the audit into the Utah's athletics department, he said similar audits at other institutions will likely happen "further down the road."

St. George Republican Stephen Urquhart, Senate chairman of the higher education appropriations subcommittee, said he hopes the audit will inform higher education leaders at all of Utah's institutions of ways to make their programs more efficient.

"I didn't request it, but as in all audits, I hope that we gain some beneficial information," Urquhart said. "I'm not at all comfortable with the outsized role of athletics in our universities. But I'm a realist, and to some degree, it is what it is."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

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