The College of Charleston, a respected southern public university in South Carolina with more than 11,000 students, made what it considered an undisputable point with the construction of a new $44 million basketball arena.
State support for the institution has been lagging over the years, while operating costs have gone through the roof. Something had to be done to help address the fiscal hemorrhage, to brighten the future of the college.
President George Benson has been upfront and forceful in explaining the need for additional resources, effectively noting the consequences of fewer dollars on faculty effectiveness and student learning. The college must not be starved, he reasoned.
So when it was discovered that the new arena did not include plans for space to officially entertain prospective donors, the trustees sprang into action, insisting on the addition of an upper-level suite for the president’s use. The added cost was dismissed as an investment.
Numerous colleges and universities have successfully applied the same logic. With rare exception, the major donor wants to be entertained, and by the president at a sporting event. Athletics opens the door to many forms of giving, but it often is only the first.
“It works or we would not be doing it,” one president of a large state university said. And he intends to raise between $2 billion and $3 billion, money that will be used for such things as student scholarships and financial aid packages and distinguished professorships. Named research and classroom buildings are frequent benefits of such hospitality.
Students and faculty members applaud the intent and results of fundraising campaigns, seeing enhanced opportunity for academic programs. Knowing that their burdens will be lightened, governors and state legislators encourage private support.
Chancellors and presidents who have not mastered the art of fundraising are certain to experience short tenures. More than ever, they need be surrounded by skillful athletic directors who know how to win on the football field and the basketball court while adhering to the NCAA rules. Contributors do not like to be embarrassed by athletic scandals.
A growing number of faculty members resent the bigness of college athletics, but many of them acknowledge that options are few given the dire need for resources. Many colleges and universities, public and private, have either just completed a major capital fund drive or are about to launch one.
“It clearly is a matter of survival,” one senior university head said. “The state is in no position to give us what we need and deserve; thus, the solicitation of private dollars.” Recent surveys of governors are not encouraging in terms of revenue generating possibilities for 2009.
Miles Brand, the able president of the NCAA, continues to worry about the amount of annual athletic operating budgets that is devoted to meeting bond requirements. And university presidents share the concern about the explosive expansion of facilities in recent times.
According to a College Board study, college prices in 2008-09 rose only slightly. That was hailed by many parents, students and politicians as welcome news. The future is less certain, however, with many college presidents convinced that significant tuition and fee increases are inevitable. They also worry about the future of federal and state loans for students and the future of room and board costs.
“The challenges have never been greater with the economic uncertainties of the day,” College Board President Gaston Caperton said. “We must protect education at all levels, and as never before. There is no future without educational achievement.”
It is ironic that collegiate games, as we like to think of them, are fundamental to colleges and universities, in this time of fiscal uncertainty. They are far more than entertainment for students, faculty, alumni and the general public; they have become essentials.
— Gene A. Budig is the former president/chancellor of Illinois State University, West Virginia University, and Kansas University, and past president of Major League Baseball’s American League.