In the largest single gift to an N.C.A.A. athletic program, the Texas oil magnate T. Boone Pickens will donate $165 million to Oklahoma State University.
(Oilman Donates $165 Million to Oklahoma State, New York Times)
I usually write about neither T. Boone Pickens, Oklahoma State nor college fundraising. But I spent most of my working life as a non-profit fundraiser. One of my jobs was fundraising for humanities programs at the University of Washington (UW). So Pickens’ decision to shower such a huge amount of lucre on a relatively undistinguished university piqued my interest. I love the apt phrase I read to describe it: the Boone-doggle (see Marion Agnew’s comment).
The UW has a fiercely competitive sports program. Seattle is a huge sports city stemming in part from the days when it was not considered a city of first rank. Then it saw its sports teams as a form of civic boosterism. Much attention is showered on sports here and that includes the UW. When I worked there, I thought there was an extremely uneasy relationship between the sports and academic programs. Athletes were clearly poorly integrated into the academic environment. Winning championships has always been far more important than ensuring sports stars received an adequate education. University donors, by and large, were far more interested in funding sports programs than academic programs. And humanities programs found perhaps the lowest level of support compared to other academic areas.
I have now worked at private and public institutions of higher education. The private schools I’ve worked for have had sports programs but sports has not dominated campus life as it tends to do in many public universities. And when sports dominates the campus environment other fields come to be seen as orphan children. They’re almost set adrift to fend for themselves amid the overwhelming hoopla surrounding sports. I don’t mean to say that the arts, sciences and humanities don’t produce great teachers and students. But I do mean to say that in doing the wonderful job that some of them are doing, they’re swimming against the tide. And that gets to be an uncomfortable feeling after you’ve seen how the cream seems always to be skimmed and proffered to the sports program.
So, I think Pickens gift is a horrible precedent only reinforcing that the ways college presidents succeed is by getting the high-roller alumnus to adopt his own sports program to the tune of beaucoup bucks. To be fair, it appears that the gift will benefit purely academic programs at the school though they clearly seem more of an afterthought:
Other projects include a new research building and new classroom building and improvements to other academic facilities.
But in this quotation, the school’s president seems to be deluding himself that the gift will benefit anything other than the sports program:
“It’ll impact the whole university,” Oklahoma State’s president, David Schmidly, said. “It’ll make it easier for us to recruit students, it’ll help us recruit faculty.
“Every aspect of the university is going to benefit from this.”
But in a strange and unfortunate way he’s right. Great numbers of students are attracted to schools for no other reason than their sports programs. Again, academics are an afterthought if they’re any thought at all in an applicant’s mind. So if you want to recruit students and faculty with boasts of your athletic prowess, then this gift is manna from heaven. But if you want to focus your energy and efforts on improving your university’s academic performance, T. Boone has done you no favors. And if anyone doubts my concerns read this piece by the sports columnist for The Oklahoman in which a University regent calls Pickens “John the Baptist.” Do you think John the Baptist had football in mind when he was baptizing souls in the Jordan lo these many years ago?
Inside Higher Education has an incisive article about Pickens’ gift and provides a much more comprehensive portrait than I do of how the University’s academic faculty view the gift and the tension I mentioned above.