Sean Morgan eats a peanut butter sandwich for lunch every day.
"This is all I can afford," grouses the 20-year-old Arizona State University sophomore, as he leans against a tree on the campus lawn and nibbles his Skippy and Wonder bread combo.

"That's why the people in there piss me off so much," he says, waving the sandwich at a nearby red-brick Victorian building. Morgan explains bitterly that inside the structure, the home of the ASU University Club, professors and administrators are no doubt lunching on sirloin tips or poached salmon, chatting merrily over lily-white tablecloths.

He grimaces and gazes up at the windows, where a few busily chewing faces are visible. "I hope they choke on their caesar salads," he says with an evil grin.

It's more than culinary jealousy that prompts such vitriol from students like Morgan toward members of the club--a posh bar and grill for ASU faculty and staff, housed in a lavishly restored 85-year-old building.

What students are bellyaching about is a plan that would require the university--meaning the state taxpayers and students who fund the school--to foot the bill for the private club. The year-old watering hole is running $250,000 in debt and faces closure unless help is forthcoming from the state.

Coming on the heels of a recent $250 tuition increase--the largest in Arizona history--students find the plan, which will allow club members to continue receiving such perks as half-price drinks during happy hour, tough to swallow. Club boosters defend the funding idea, saying that because the facility is an asset to the university community, it is a worthy place to spend state money. The difference of opinion is developing into an old-fashioned collegiate food fight.

Opened in April 1992, the University Club was touted as the perfect meeting place for collegiate professionals: a mahogany-lined oasis--no students allowed--where intellectual discussion would flower, the school's academic future could be charted and VIPs could be wined and dined on department expense accounts.

But it was also touted as self-sufficient. Projections released by club supporters in 1989 predicted that with a membership of 600, the club would be self-sustaining, relying on membership dues and private donations.

Students led the opposition to the club, irked that alcohol would be allowed in the faculty's inner sanctum while the rest of the campus remained dry. They also believed that sooner or later the club would come hat in hand for university financial support. It has turned out to be sooner.

"We all predicted this would happen," says Arizona Students Association executive director Patrick McWhortor. ASA, a student lobbying group, tried to block the club, informing school officials that faculty clubs at other Pac-10 universities all required extensive subsidy. But the warnings went unheeded.

There was trouble from the beginning. Starting with only 415 members, the club was hampered by steep membership fees--$325 to join and $12 per month, plus the cost of food and drinks. Although there are now more than 600 faculty, staff, alumni and business people who belong, the club failed to break even, coming up nearly $250,000 short during the first year.

As a result, ASU President Lattie Coor is asking the Arizona Board of Regents for permission to cover the red ink. Coor is out of town and could not be reached for comment.

Floyd Land, who oversees the student Memorial Union at ASU and helps coordinate affairs for the University Club, explains that the $250,000 deficit isn't due to mismanagement or faculty excess. The club ran into several "unexpected" expenses, he says, including the cost of replacing donated refrigerators and ovens that turned out to be defective, and higher-than-expected renovation bills. The building, formally known as the Fine Arts Annex, was built in 1908 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Although several student groups wanted the then-vacant facility, former ASU president J. Russell Nelson gave it to club boosters in 1989. It is an elegant structure, an Ivy League monument out of place on a campus known for its boxy, functional architecture.

What goes on inside the University Club is as refined as the building itself. The club features a downstairs "Bistro," which serves drinks, trendy sandwiches and pasta. The more formal upstairs dining room, which comes complete with silver and crystal place settings, features more pricy dinners, like swordfish and grilled quail. The regal atmosphere, says Jon Rose--the president of the club's board of directors and a law professor--is an immense asset to the university community."

"You can't imagine how important it is for a major university to have a club like this," Rose says. "All the major universities have them, and they are invaluable for faculty and staff." Rose ticks off a litany of the club's advantages, from giving the faculty a good place to conduct business to providing the athletic department with an impressive location for recruiting brunches. "My son even had his wedding there," he says.

Dick McGaw, Faculty Senate president and a political science professor, also sings the club's praises. "The club has given ASU faculty a sense of community, an ambiance in which we have developed a truly collegial relationship," he says.

Rose doesn't believe the "club should be held accountable" for the inaccurate financial projections in 1989 by club boosters--many of whom are no longer with the university--and he unabashedly advances the theory that the university should cover the club's current deficit and contribute to the facility every year.

"I'm not sure we should ever be financially free of the university," he says. "Obviously, we can't run up huge deficits every year, but the club provides the university with benefits, and it is reasonable to assume that the university should pay for them."
McWhortor says the funding decision reflects poorly on ASU's priorities. "When students are having to endure a large tuition increase and when ASU departments are being asked to cut back, why does the administration want to put money into the University Club?" he wonders, citing a recent Coor memo directing administrators to find ways to shrink costs.

"Is this what students and taxpayers should be paying for?"
In addition, McWhortor believes a move to spend scarce educational dollars on the ongoing faculty feed is impolitic, and could harm the university's long-term fund-raising efforts at the state legislature.

"In a year when we had to beg the legislature not to cut us, funding for the University Club wasn't what we were begging for," McWhortor says. "Lawmakers will take note of frivolous expenditures like the club, and it may give them an excuse to cut the budget even more next year. That will hurt the whole university community."
The Board of Regents, which will consider the funding request during its meeting next month in Flagstaff, may agree. The board, which is still smarting from attacks two years ago from lawmakers who accused regents of spending too much on staff and plush offices, is now acutely aware of the need to pinch pennies.

Regents President Andrew Hurwitz says he could envision helping the club with a one-year cash infusion. But he added that "I don't think we should subsidize the University Club long term, and we don't have any plans to do so. In the long term, we expect it to be self-sufficient."

ASU officials are quick to claim that neither tax funds nor student tuition dollars would be spent to bail out the professors' bar. ASU budget director Alan Carroll says the revenue would be tapped from "local funds," which are the proceeds from university investments, the student bookstore, licensing of the ASU logo and dorm-room fees. Many students, however, fail to see how Carroll's distinction makes the university subsidy any more acceptable.

"Dollars are dollars," Morgan says. "If they weren't being spent on the University Club, then they could be spent on something to help students and the school.

"Why should we have to subsidize cushy luncheons for administrators? Why should students or taxpayers spend money on stuff like that when students are dropping out of school, or eating one a meal day, because they don't have enough cash? It's wrong.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >