Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Alaska Fiscal Policy| More on UAA ...

I wrote a piece Monday on the decision by the Alaska State Hockey Association (ASHA) on Saturday to issue a vote of "no confidence" in University of Alaska - Anchorage (UAA) Athletic Director Steve Cobb.  The Anchorage Daily News reported on the vote Sunday:
In a resolution sent to a range of university and state leaders, the association cited the steady decline of UAA hockey and claimed repeated efforts to reach out to the university’s athletic department and hockey coaches have been “systematically met with callous indifference.”
As I explained in my piece, I believe this story is as much about Alaska fiscal policy as anything else.  Unlike other public universities, UAA does not raise a significant amount of its budget from alumni and other supporters. Instead, the state underwrites virtually all of the University's costs beyond those covered by tuition.  Because UAA does not have to reach out to donors and supporters, it does not have to pay attention or otherwise cultivate a relationship with them.  The result is the attitude of "callous indifference" noted in the ASHA resolution.

Since Monday, the story has continued and not in a good way for UAA.  

Yesterday, the UAA Hockey Alumni Association, which counts more than 300 former Seawolves among its membership, issued its own vote of no confidence in Dr. Cobb.  Their explanation for their decision proves my earlier point about UAA's indifference to its supporters.

According to the Anchorage Daily News report of the Association's decision, "[s]ince ... it was formed a few years ago, the alumni group has raised more than $100,000 for UAA hockey and the athletic program, including $55,000 for an endowment fund."  Yet, as with the ASHA, the Association feels"shunned" by Cobb's actions.

As if to put an exclamation point on the discussion, a caller on Monday morning's Casey Reynolds Show recounted a discussion with Dr. Cobb during an earlier situation:
... we had a meeting down in the locker room after all the alumni were up in arms about the whole arena.  And Dr. Cobb said, basically along the lines of it doesn't matter how much money this Athletic Department loses, the state is awash in money and we are just going to get a blank check. 
The podcast of that discussion is here; that call was from the 7:50 - 10:00 mark.

Put another way, we really don't need your support and don't have to put up with your ideas.  We will run this program however we want to because the state will keep paying the bills.

Sometime Monday, after the first story broke, Tom Case, UAA's Chancellor weighed in with a statement that included the following, "I have confidence in the steps being taken by Athletic Director Dr. Cobb ...."  KTUU's report on the statement is here.

Subsequently, in response to today's story about the action taken by the Alumni Association, the ADN reported "UAA Chancellor Tom Case ... could not be reached [for comment]."  Hopefully, that means that UAA's Administration is reconsidering its course of action.

Its failure to do so will expand this issue.

Among other things, the Chancellor is the primary face of the university to the larger community.  In the normal university, this is not intended merely as a "public service" role; it is the position where the rubber meets the road in terms of developing a solid and significant fundraising base.

In Monday's piece I wrote about the Fisher Report, the results of a study of the UA system by a team of highly respected higher education consultants commissioned by then newly-installed UA President Patrick Gamble in 2010.  The portions I wrote about Monday related to the "mediocre, at best" efforts of the University to connect in a serious way with its alumni and supporters.

To recap from the report, "[t]he giving rates of alumni to UAF’s, UAA’s and UAS’s annual funds ranges between one and six percent; embarrassingly low ….”  By contrast, “[t]he national average for alumni giving is over 17 percent, and some institutions go as high as 60 to 70 percent.”

The report also identified who is responsible for leading the recovery from this situation.  "The Chancellors, in coordination with staff or key volunteers, are crucial to soliciting [major] gifts and providing careful stewardship and attention to this group of donors. ... the Chancellors, with appropriate help from the President, must be in the forefront of this fund raising activity."

Chancellor Case's action in this situation will tell the broader community whether the attitude of "callous indifference" of the University toward its supporters extends to the person charged with being "in the forefront" of the University's fund raising activity.

What we saw Monday in the Chancellor's reaction likely was the academic equivalent of the military response of "closing ranks."  This isn't the time for that.  Instead, its time for the Chancellor to step up to one of the most important functions of University leadership -- connecting the University to its outside supporters and constituencies.

Sometimes University supporters become overzealous.  But even then, because they have been asked to and have become investors in the University enterprise, their voices deserve respect.  That hasn't happened in this situation.  Instead, at least to this point, the University's attitude toward what it should view as some of its most valued and committed supporters has been one of disrespect.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of this situation, however, my point from Monday's piece stands.  It is time for the University to connect and develop its supporters.  For the very reasons Dr. Cobb unintentionally made clear in his locker room speech, the state should reduce its funding by the amount that the University should be raising from its alumni and other friends.  The state should not be the University's blank check.

In a time of declining state spending, its time for the University system to start pulling the same weight as its peers in the L48.