Friday, April 26, 2013

Short Takes| UAA's Case disappoints ...

The Anchorage Daily News carries a story this morning on the continuing UAA saga.  The headline is "UAA chancellor defends athletic director Cobb."

One of the most interesting pieces of this story came Monday during the Casey Reynolds Show.  There, a caller reported on an earlier meeting with Cobb:
... 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 the show is here; the call starts at the 7:50 mark.

Nothing in Chancellor Case's comments carried in today's article addresses that issue.  Instead, the focus of Case's defense is centered mostly around the performance of the University's sports programs other than hockey.
"What doesn't resonate as well with some hockey people is we're a Division II school and our Division II sports are in the top four percent in the nation. 
"That's something I don't take lightly. That says a lot. I was talking to (Great Northwest Athletic Conference commissioner) Dave Haglund recently, and he told me it was OK to share this: In his experience, Steve is probably the best athletic director in the conference. 
"That's not compelling to our hockey fans, maybe, but it is to me.''

Read more here:
All that may be true, but it is not a good defense of either Cobb, or Case's confidence in him.

As the University's own Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) has pointed out repeatedly, Alaska is headed for an economic crisis.
Right now, the state is on a path it can’t sustain. Growing spending and falling revenues are creating a widening fiscal gap. In its 10-year fiscal plan, the state Office of Management and Budget (OMB) projects that spending the [state's current] cash reserves might fill this gap until 2023 ….   
But what happens after 2023?  Reasonable assumptions about potential new revenue  sources suggest we do not have enough cash in reserves to avoid a severe fiscal crunch soon after 2023, and with that fiscal crisis will come an economic crash.
Maximum Sustainable Yield: FY 2014 Update (ISER, Jan. 2013).

In that environment it is critical that every arm of state government work to minimize costs and maximize contributions.

I have been involved in a number of university fund raising efforts in my life and in my experience, athletics play a key role.  Athletics brings people in the doors, helps to develop a sense of institutional loyalty and commitment, and over time, converts that support to dollars.  Supporters that start with athletics often become supporters of other programs as well.  It is one of the significant front doors through which a university builds strong alumni and other donor support.

Instead of serving that function, UAA's athletics program is now driving potential supporters away, out of the front door.

Whether he realizes it or not, one of Chancellor Case's greatest responsibilities to the institution and the state is to lead the University's fundraising efforts.  When first named to his position, UA system President Patrick Gamble asked a team of highly respected consultants to evaluate the University system and provide recommendations.  One of the areas on which the President asked the team he retained to focus was fundraising (or, what universities prefer to call "institutional advancement").

In the final report (referred to as the "Fisher Report" after the leader of the team), the team had the following to say:   "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."

Regardless of how the Commissioner of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (who, after all, effectively is hired by the Athletic Directors) may feel about Dr. Cobb, the litmus test that Chancellor Case should use in evaluating Cobb's performance is whether he is making the contributions to the University that need to be made by an Athletic Director as Alaska heads into its fiscal storm.  Is he bringing alumni and supporters in the front door and helping to strengthen UAA's support and financial outlook.

Undertaking such an assessment is part of the Chancellor's role of "providing careful stewardship" of the University's efforts.

Rationally evaluated in any number of ways (attendance in major arenas, financial health of major events, alumni support) the answer to the question of whether Cobb is performing those tasks at the required level is "no".  Indeed, Cobb is moving UAA in the reverse (and wrong) direction.

I am confident the legislature next year will be evaluating how all of the state's institutions are preparing to deal with reduced budgets and what efforts they are making to maximize contributions from other sources to their bottom lines.  As I have discussed previously on these pages one of the criteria for evaluating the University system will be whether the institutions are doing as well as their peers in attracting contributions from alumni and other supporters.

Chancellor Case has the opportunity to make UAA's position much better by starting out fresh with a new Athletic Director.  Given the history that has built up, Dr. Cobb is never going to return to the starting point, much less help make up the additional ground that UAA requires in preparing to shoulder its share of the institution's costs.

Chancellor Case is wrong, very wrong in putting his confidence in Dr. Cobb. As leaner economic times arrive it is only a matter of time before that becomes apparent.  The only significant question is how much additional ground UAA will lose in the meantime.