KU athletics, academics compete for private dollars

Wednesday’s announcement by Kansas University athletics department officials that they intend to build a $24 million “Olympic Village” southwest of Allen Fieldhouse should be of particular interest to KU Endowment Association officials as well as those interested in the academic/research side of the university.

It also should be of interest to the university’s yet-to-be-named new chancellor.

KU athletics department officials have done a superb job in raising big dollars for a number of projects such as the large, plush new football office, new football practice fields, numerous improvements at Allen Fieldhouse, a new boathouse for KU’s women’s rowing team, improvements for the men’s baseball team, improvements for the men’s basketball team, hiring more tutors for athletes and many other projects.

Athletics department officials stress these projects have been funded by private gifts and pledges. Now they intend to spend another $25 million for their “master” sports plan.

All of this — the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars raised to pay for the above-mentioned improvements — has come from a number of major and generous donors. In the Wednesday announcement, an athletics department spokesman said construction on the master sports complex would not get started until the money is in hand, adding that solicitations started last year.

This is going on while the KU Endowment Association, one of the nation’s best at any state-supported university, sits still with no major capital campaign under way.

KUEA officials say they are studying and working on plans for a new campaign, but such planning is long overdue. The university’s last capital campaign ended in 2004 with $635 million pledged or contributed.

Today’s economy has focused attention on the importance of private money if colleges and universities are to remain competitive. Many state-aided institutions are engaged in major fundraising efforts. Missouri officials recently announced they had finished their recent drive, topping $1 billion. The University of Texas has a goal of more than $3 billion, and Ohio State tops this with a goal of approximately $3.5 billion.

Professionals who direct and supervise financial campaigns for colleges and universities pointed out a year or so ago that there was a lot of money available for capital campaigns. They said KU was missing millions.

While KU Endowment officials have been quiet, KU athletics department officials have been calling on donors throughout the country, asking for money and pledges for the multitude of athletic-related projects on Mount Oread.

Obviously, there has been little coordination between KUEA and the athletics department. Now, the national economy is such that private giving is likely to be more difficult, and the Obama administration is calling for a major cutback in income tax deductions for private charitable giving.

The prime givers, those who have been so generous in past years in their support of KU, do not have endless resources. How many times can the same people be expected to make major gifts to the university? It’s reasonable to believe there is a limit to what even the most loyal KU supporters can give.

It’s known that some of those who have made major pledges to the athletics department have asked for extensions on their giving schedule due to current economic conditions, and yet, the athletics department has not slowed its efforts to raise millions of dollars.

If everything was perfect, it would seem university officials would have announced a grand “master plan” to elevate the academic and research excellence at the school. The KU athletics master plan calls for the KU basketball team to be challenging for the national crown year after year and for the football team to play in a post-season bowl game every year.

What about specific targets and goals for the academic side of the university? Chancellor Robert Hemenway announced some years ago that he wanted to have KU ranked among the top 25 state-aided universities in its academic excellence, followed by a similar ranking among all U.S. universities. For various reasons, the first goal has not been achieved within the chancellor’s timetable, and it is highly unlikely the second, even more challenging, goal will be attained. Even so, it is good to have goals and targets.

What must KU faculty members think about the steady and successful efforts by the sports side of the university to raise millions of dollars while about all the academic side of the university can talk about is cuts in state support and the harmful consequences those cuts have on the university, its students, faculty and the state?

Consider what millions of dollars in private support would mean at this time to help fund many needs on Mount Oread.

Has the athletic department muscled in on the university’s efforts to raise private money, or is it a case of the athletic people taking advantage of the absence of any major Endowment Association fundraising effort?

This is taking place when KU is trying to identify and hire a truly outstanding individual to move into the chancellor’s office. Surely anyone considering the chancellorship will study the availability of private money, particularly in light of cutbacks by the state Legislature. Past records in private giving are impressive, but what about the future? Also, those being encouraged to seek the chancellorship must wonder about the relationship or level of emphasis and importance at KU between athletics and academics. Who or what runs the institution and what is the indebtedness of the athletic department?

Kansas University enjoys an excellent record as a state-aided university with tremendous potential for even greater achievements in the years to come. However, to reach new heights, it will take visionary, courageous, inspirational leadership, significant private fiscal support and the proper balance between academics and athletics. There must be strong, intelligent oversight and control from the chancellor’s office and strong, effective leadership in the independent Endowment Association to raise millions of badly needed private dollars for the university.