Thursday, June 17, 2010

The coach and the professor

Mitch Albom on MSU criticism of media coverage of Tom Izzo's flirtation with the Cleveland Cavaliers:
Tuesday night's gathering bordered on choosing a pope. A school president gushing over keeping -- not hiring, simply keeping -- a sports coach makes you ponder if she'd do the same over a beloved English professor who touches more than 15 kids a year?
Albom, like me, has a great deal of both respect and affection for Izzo, but I'm deeply grateful for the nod to the skewed priorities of the University, the state, and the nation at large.

I love MSU basketball, but it is just basketball.

Read the full column here.


Theresa said...

of course an english prof wouldn't because basketball is a money maker for the school. izzo is the king. and besides, he touches more than 15 kids a year. isn't that evidence by the outpouring of support for him?

Gavin said...

College sports fund themselves. The fact that the Athletic Department's budget is separate from the rest of the university is always the defense for paying very generous salaries to successful coaches. (The argument being that Izzo's salary doesn't pull money out of the rest of the university, it's funded by athletic revenues.) The flip side of this is that athletic revenues largely don't contribute to the rest of the university.

Thus athletic departments largely aren't money makers for the university. They're money makers, if they lucky, for themselves. People that argue that successful athletics are good for the university usually rely on arguments that they generate alumni goodwill and increased donations. This seems, more often than not, to be taken as an article of faith. It doesn't seem to have much effect on department budgets.

angela said...

I realize it's fashionable to hate on athletics, but really, without athletics as high profile as what Izzo has given us (which allowed us to get Dantonio, who made the football team better, etc etc etc) MSU would be hurting for even MORE students. tuition is the most stable funding base the university has, and athletics brings in more tuition paying students than dr. arch.

also, you could have easily asked a few fundraising professionals who raise money to fund your department, etc., just how much athletics impacts alumni contributions. my husband raises money for CANR, and believe me, it is not at all an "article of faith". the fact that you call sizeable alumni contributions donations suggests you don't really care for that very important, increasingly vital aspect of university funding. my husband's team of 4 has raised a substantial portion of their dept's budget. i'll have to check with my fundraising friends from MSU, but I am certain they raised quite a bit of the budget for arts and letters.

in whole, i think your argument that MSU makes no money from athletics is dead wrong.

Tim said...

I think Gavin's main point is that universities always have to do this two-step dance when it comes to athletics -- revenues, direct and indirect, always benefit the broader university, but expenditures (like big coach's salaries) come only out of this firewalled budget. And there's a good deal of hypocrisy there. Either something is a money maker, or it isn't.

To go to your tuition argument, English and literature departments, particularly if you include the broader introductory writing and humanities courses, actually are HUGE moneymakers for universities, in tuition revenue, number of courses taught, even number of majors. But they're regularly treated as unloved stepchildren by universities, and certainly face budget pinches in bad times for the broader university in a way that athletics are never made to. So, it's heads I win, tails you lose.

There are also all of the indirect costs a university bears for sports, from security, parking, and traffic for the games onwards. Those also don't figure into these discussions, although indirect revenues do.

My point here isn't against college athletics or caring about them. I think people go to college for many reasons and to do many things that bring them from adolescence into adulthood, and learning calculus and writing research papers are only some of them. My cousin played basketball at MSU and went to the NCAA finals, and works for the athletic department now. The first half is about administratiive honesty. The second, larger one is about making certain that that attention and engagement that might be generated and maintained through sports actually DOES carry over into those indirect benefits in broader collegiate education. That alumni who feel the pangs at possibly losing a basketball coach recognize that the pangs of losing a professor, a generation of PhD candidates, or an entire academic department or research program, especially in aggregate, hurt what a university is and means just as much.

Gavin said...

As the substantial tuition increases of the past few years demonstrate, simply bringing in more tuition-paying students doesn't balance the budget. It obviously has a more direct impact on private schools, where tuition is close to the sole source of revenue, than in public universities. At MSU, for example, tuition accounts for less than 70% of total revenue, and given that I haven't found any specific information on endowment income, alumni contributions, or grant revenue, it may be substantially less than 70%.

At least at Michigan State, a shortage of students is not and has not been the problem, and since the university relies on a state subsidy, increasing in-state enrollment alone would make the budget crisis worse, not fix it.

I don't see why using the word "donations" indicates that I don't take alumni contributions seriously, although I would argue that relying upon alumni contributions and research grants as a long-term solution to a budget crisis is likely unsustainable and on an institutional level, fiscally and ethically irresponsible.

angela said...

1. No one argued that bringing in more tuition paying students balanced the budget. That's your assumption, and not an argument I made.

2. The lit suggests that not only do schools see an increase in applicants after athletic success, they see an increase in QUALITY applicant after athletic success. (

Sustaining athletic success, as Tom Izzo has done, means that every year, MSU's applicant pool is better than the year before. That's one reason admissions standards at MSU have gotten tougher since we were admitted.

3. At some point, the state will no longer be able to subsidize public universities. When that happens, having a large number of increasingly "quality" graduates to point to as reason to attend your school will be invaluable. It will certainly help to justify what will likely be higher tuition.

4. 70 percent is a substantial chunk of revenues, and that's important. because MSU is able to continue to draw students in, and justify its tuition, that 70 percent is increasingly vital.

5. whether athletics is a money maker is the concern of the athletic department. if they were DRAWING MONEY WAY from MSU, they would have to answer for that -- but they're not. we know, via the research, that athletics brings in tuition-paying students. in that way, they contribute to the university without drawing and money away.

tim, i am pretty sure your "indirect costs" are taken care of by the athletic fund, as well.

5. Actually, gavin, you're completely wrong on your approach to MSU's budget issue. Take U of M, for example. They got out of the gate 20 years ahead of MSU on raising money for an endowment -- and now they're the only university in the nation that is actively hiring and expanding.

If financial independence and solvency is the goal, which for any public university and its budget, it is -- then creating an endowment is critical. These aren't rolling 100 dollar contributions from 2010 grads that are making up part of that other 30 percent -- they're endowed chairs for departments; three million dollar gifts; gifts that fund a specific program for x years; etc.

6. Why you make the leap to assuming that creating an endowment that would free the university from tenuous state funding is ethically and fiscally responsible is beyond me.

Is it ethically and fiscally irresponsible to create a savings account, and an investment portfolio? If so, guilty. Is it fiscally irresponsible to set aside money now to pay for expenses in the future?

Gavin said...

Angela, we're talking about separate things here.

1. The literature you've provided shows a link between athletic success and admissions. It does not show a link between athletic success and university revenue/budget. The only way that increased admissions is relevant to the argument I was trying to make is if increased admissions has a net positive effect on a university's cost/revenue balance. If that's not the case, then the literature isn't particularly relevant.

2. I don't see any reason to categorically declare that "at some point, the state will no longer be able to subsidize public universities." The cynic in me wishes that it were less likely that we as a state were going to allow ourselves to divest public higher education, but if this happens it won't be because the state can't do it, it will be because we have decided not to. (And if this happens, I don't see much point in MSU continuing to exist. I'm sure plenty of people will disagree with me, but we will have entirely lost our land-grant mission.)

3. I don't recall arguing that athletics were a drain on MSU. And I don't recall criticizing endowment development, although I did express skepticism of MSU's long-term ability to build a sufficient endowment to offset the loss of state funding. Kudos to MSU, I guess, if I'm wrong. (MSU has done some substantial endowment fundraising in recent years, tripling what was before 2000 a less than $500 million endowment, but it still isn't anywhere close to enough to offset a loss of state funding. Endowments aren't perfect either. See Endowment losses including U of M and Harvard.