Oregon State University and Michigan State University made headlines earlier this year as the recipients of donations to athletics programs. At $50 million and $32 million respectively, both of these gifts were the largest gifts in institutional history, and each rivaled the total endowments of many institutions.
Athletics are an integral part of many colleges and universities and, for many, entwined with the institution’s identity and brand. But, as all of higher education is facing drastic cuts and with affinity for athletics overtaking other institutional priorities, we must consider how to broaden and bolster engagement so that what we offer in our classrooms is as attractive to donors as the athletics we offer our students and fans.
Contemplating this raises the all-important question: How can strong and sustainable community support be extended beyond athletics? For higher education to survive our current financial reality, it must.
Alaska isn’t an anomaly anymore
At the University of Alaska Anchorage, we’re no strangers to seismic budget shakeups. We’ve had to make deep, existential cuts at the university system and campus levels.
While many public and private institutions watched our budget reality play out over the past two years with a mix of fascination and horror, they were thankful to see our situation as an anomaly. Yet, COVID-19 has leveled the financial playing field across the academy in ways none of us could have predicted.
With the ongoing pandemic and declining enrollments, many other colleges and universities have now joined us in facing enormous budget cuts impacting essential parts of our identities: academic programs we offer, faculty and staff we employ, scholarships we award. Even athletic departments are working with less than they’re accustomed to as higher education prioritizes our limited funds.
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If I can send one message to my colleagues across higher education, it would be this: Alaska isn’t an anomaly anymore, and it’s unlikely that we’ll go back to a “normal” of counting on support from state legislators to fund anything beyond their interpretations of our core missions. While this is a sobering reality to grapple with, there are important lessons we can take from community support for athletics, as well as one considerable note of caution.
With intercollegiate athletics, we see a connection among alumni, donors, and our greater communities. Athletics departments are setting the example for how we must build excitement for what we provide.
We can learn from the way in which they’re connecting and then make that appeal when advocating for the benefits of public higher education. Instead of just rooting for the team, we need to extend that community support to the institution itself.
Last year, UAA had to make the difficult decision to cut funding for some sports programs, including Alpine skiing, gymnastics, and hockey. We extended the opportunity to these teams to raise money to cover operating costs in the hopes of allowing their athletes to play another day.
Boosters are rallying now, with deadlines looming. Alpine skiing achieved its financial goal relatively quickly, and hockey and gymnastics continue their fundraising efforts valiantly.
Leveraging the athletics playbook
What we learned from these experiences is that community appeal matters, but it must be managed carefully and thoughtfully with an eye toward long-term sustainability.
This reality has to be something leaders in higher education shoulder with increased frequency. At UAA, we’re focusing on developing revenue generation and fundraising plans with specific, measurable goals. Our athletics fundraising is integrating with systemwide campaign work aimed at increasing annual and major gift engagement and revenues.
As we have watched our community rally behind our athletics programs, it is a reminder we need to leverage the athletics playbook to harness that same excitement and enthusiasm for other areas of the university. Some of this will mean finding new ways to engage athletics’ supporters in different parts of the institution.
But it also means engaging supporters whose passion lies in other areas such as student scholarships, research and academic program support to stave off the loss of other vital parts of our institution.
Whether it’s contributing to our athletic programs or academic programs, we know community backing is essential in moving forward sustainably. The outpouring of support from the community in Alaska and beyond has been put to the test, and we’ve found it to be generous, even in the midst of a pandemic.
Our hope now is to inspire our community with the message these gifts enable us all to work together toward a brighter future for Alaska.
Bruce Schultz is interim chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage and was previously vice chancellor for student affairs.