Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

If it’s not broken don’t fix it, but it is broken 6 – rethinking some sacred cows

Posted in career development, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on February 11, 2013

This is my sixth installment to a longer discussion of one of the more important challenges that we face in the United States, impacting on long term employability for those who seek to enter the workforce, and more generally on our national economy as a whole: a worsening crisis in our educational system (see the supplemental postings listed at the end of my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, numbers 44-48 for Parts 1-5.)

College athletics are popular and draw the attention of alumni audiences – and of the general public as well at least for storied, successful teams. And when those teams participate in highly popular sports such as football or basketball and they play in their sport’s highest rated leagues, their games are often televised and this means revenue generation. And this brings me to the myth of college athletics – that it in some way always generates revenue for its colleges and universities. That, however, is a myth only and for many schools even when they have successful big-name teams. I write this with the real world example of one of my own alma maters in mind. Their basketball prowess has traditionally been legendary and for good reason. They win and keep on winning and if not at every game for most and from season to season.

When I was a graduate student there and both their men’s and woman’s teams were at the top of their leagues and the football team was winning too, a decision was made to build a new athletics stadium. And there were cost overruns and televising rights to broadcast their games did not prove as lucrative as best-case anticipated. And the school faced a fiscal shortfall from this and cut a huge number of its library’s subscriptions to professional level journals needed by faculty and students for their academic work – and while still striving to make and keep this university a world-class educational and research institution.

I write of this and I still remember it so vividly because of a conversation I had at the time with one of the school’s athletic coaches. He coached for one of their storied teams and he did know about the budget cuts that were carving into the academics side of the school. But he was outraged that anyone would in any way question the sacred cow conception that big name sports could be anything other than a revenue generator. He in fact, when faced with the details of the cutbacks, argued that the school was there for their athletics programs rather than the other way around. Mythic reasoning can be like that.

I do not and would not try to argue a case against sports and athletics participation. I do challenge the still way too highly respected and believed myth that college and university athletics are of necessity a big money maker for their schools, and if not from fees for television coverage rights, then from increased alumni giving. Real world experience shows this simply to not be the case, at least as a general rule. And exceptions where athletics program cash flow is in fact positive overall and going into the school coffers should be considered just that – exceptions, and ones that cannot be relied upon to continue long-term and indefinitely.

This is just one college and university finances myth that school managerial and leadership operations and strategy tend to be built around. I will round out this posting with a second that is at least as pervasive if not more so, and one that involves alumni generosity and giving.

• Directed donations made with a requirement that they be expended to meet specific donor-requested goals are good for the schools that receive them – always. (the myth)

I have already written of this issue several times in the course of the first five installments to this series, when writing about the long-term expense obligations for maintaining buildings. Even when a major supporter donates full funding for that new building they want naming rights too, the school is going to have to keep paying for its maintenance and upkeep forever – or at least seemingly so and as increased ongoing fixed operating expenses. This is true if that building comes as an essential addition to the school’s facilities or whether it just meets “lower priority needs.” Here, it would be more accurate to posit that:

• A college or university’s leadership has reason to appreciate alumni support through gifts and donations, but this funding stream offers far more value when offered without usage restrictions, and even when that means dividing it out to meet portions of multiple real, high priority needs. (the reality)

There is a saying: “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Colleges and universities should learn how to more effectively and discretely examine teeth, and how to identify when seeming and presumed sources of incoming value might carry their own costs, and even significant ongoing costs too.

In this case, that might mean negotiating with a prospective high level alumni or other donor on how they can best perpetuate their name through their giving, where that new building (or whatever) isn’t always what is needed most. And once again this brings me back to the basic point of argument that I have been making in this series going back to its Part 1 beginning. If a school is to succeed and endure in carrying out its core mission it has to be an effective business in its underlying operations and organizational planning and strategy. Ongoing vulnerabilities to the myths of revenue and expenses such as the two I have touched upon here simply reflect a failure to operate as a sustainable business with all of the consequences that carries.

I am planning at least at this time on finishing this series with one more concluding installment on engaging more effectively with emerging 21st century realities. I will write that to post a few days after this. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development.

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