Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Colorado State University and its On Campus Stadium

A few disclaimers and clarifications before I begin. I have been watching the CSU on-campus stadium saga for some time and I am currently a member of the joint CSU/Fort Collins Stadium Advisory Group formed to mitigate any untoward effects of the new stadium on its neighbors.

This essay is NOT connected to the advisory group in any way and reflects, in its rambling way, my own opinions about the stadium process and university funding. All of my analysis and speculations are strictly that, analysis and speculations. They are based on the best information I have and I try to be factually correct, but I have no special knowledge.

Finally, I have found that all the people associated with CSU and the City of Fort Collins appear to be acting in ways they feel will genuinely improve, in the medium term, the university and the city.


Universities in general are in trouble. The reason, as is often the case, is money. State funding of the higher education system is drying up. There are four main sources of money for higher education:
 - Student Tuition and Fees
 - Faculty Research Grants
 - State Government Funding
 - Alumni and Large Donor Giving/Endowments

A couple of major forces related to funding of the university system are at work. The first is consolidation of wealth and power.

Astoundingly, wealth distribution in societies throughout the world and throughout time has followed a single pattern, a Pareto distribution.  The Pareto distribution is a self-similar curve where quantities are concentrated. For example, the top 10% of the population might control 70% of the wealth. If you take all of the wealth of that top 10%, the top 10% of those richer folks will have 70% of the wealth of the rich folks. Throughout the world, this basic curve can be used to describe wealth distributions. The differences are in the constants. In a highly egalitarian society, the top 10% may have 50% of the wealth. In a kleptocracy, the top 10% may have 95% of the wealth. For the past couple generation's wealth in the US has become increasingly concentrated in fewer hands. In 2012 the top 10% in the US had about 76% of all wealth.

The same concentration of wealth applies to institutions. There are an increasing number of college students. Before World War II, the entire university system was smaller relative to the population and fewer people received higher education. The system expanded after WWII to include a much larger percentage of the population. This was extremely successful economically. We met the need for additional seats by making existing institutions larger rather than increasing the number of institutions. In the 1970's the average size of a state university was probably about 20,000 students. In the past decade or so we have seen this increase to 30,000 or 35,000 students. Hand in hand with this increase in institution size there has been a growing concentration of alumni giving. The lion's share of giving is going to a smaller and smaller set of universities. In 2015 about 30% of the all donations went to just 20 schools. The more successful graduates you have, the more likely your university will move up on the alumni giving list. Within each school there is a smaller and smaller set of donors who give the lion's share of all donations, and hence have a larger and larger voice in the direction of the institution.

A second force is cultural. In the U.S. we tend to view all aspects of culture through the lens of commerce. This has become even more pronounced over the last 30 years. The primacy of commerce extends to all aspects of culture. Even religion has corners, like the "prosperity gospel" based on prayer as commerce. Government is seen as inherently inefficient (bad) because it does not operate in a marketplace.  This has become accepted to such an extent that we have starved every civic institution that is not directly involved in commerce. Prestige and power are associated with wealth. In effect, we are creating a new feudal society where wealthy merchants have become the noble class.

Universities are not exempt from this cultural lens. Every few years a drumbeat starts announcing that college graduates are not ready for the workplace. That is, a university education is viewed as job training. This push to commercialize everything has also hit university administration. Universities are increasingly run as a business. This seems to be inevitable. Basic management training in the US is based on the business model. There are specializations for non-profit organizations, but the models of organization, motivation, and feedback are based on the current business model fads. Along with this comes a top-down approach to management with power and money concentrated in as few hands as possible. The university president acts as a CEO. As such, he or she is charged the operation of the institution and all true decision making is made at the top. An effective CEO will listen to advisors, but this is more to counteract opposition and build consensus than to alter direction.

As a business, the university must do what it can to satisfy its customers. It competes against other, similar institutions. To be financially sound, each university must turn a profit so it can support current operations and expand in the future. In this view, the funding sources can be viewed as customers and, like a successful business, the institution should be customer focused.

Taking each customer in turn:

Students are ostensibly the raison d'ĂȘtre of the university but not all students are alike. Because they pay higher tuition, out of state students are more desirable, and CSU is competing against universities in the student's home state. For marketing reasons, higher achieving students are also more valuable. The product that CSU is marketing to students is the experience on campus. To satisfy these students, the experience should be comfortable and stimulating. That is one of the reasons so much money has been spent on improving dorms, the recreation center, and the student union.

Faculty research grants serve several functions. They fund labs, faculty, and graduate students. Grants serve a marketing function by increasing the international visibility and prestige of the organization. Grants follow grants. The more grants a university has, the more likely other grants will follow. There is an easy way to incentivize faculty to bring in more grants. You simply measure the size of the grants and reward the faculty who bring in the most. In terms of grants, each department is either a profit center or a loss. Sometimes unprofitable departments simply have to be funded (English, Art...) but they can be put under pressure in the normal ways to be more efficient. For example: increasing the number of adjunct faculty, automating instruction, increasing class size ...

While still a comparatively small portion of research grants, corporate funding of research is becoming more important. This leaves the university exposed to pressure to support the funding corporations. See the recent scandal at Brown University.

When you hear that CSU is a research institution, be aware that this a sales pitch to both students (we are on the cutting edge) and to grant organizations (we can effectively use your money). The goal may be research, but only in so far as that research provides funding either by attracting more grants or attracting more students. Research tends to be concentrated in areas that might be commercially viable in a decade or so. Too long for strictly commercial enterprises, but not pure research untied to commerce.

Because it is a funding source for the school, state government can be considered a customer of the university. In this sense, lobbying is "marketing" to the government. State government is in a rather unique position because it owns the institution even if it doesn't provide much support. In Colorado, the state government has a number of constraints that limit the amount of money it can spend on higher education. State government is thus the worst kind of customer: cheap, demanding, impossible to dump.

Finally, there is alumni and large donor giving. Donor funding is discretionary and based on whim. First you have to find the wealthy, then you have to persuade them that your institution is worth funding. If wealthy alumni feel the institution has helped them in their life or helped a community they care about, it will be worth funding. If a donor has a particular interest that can be furthered by funding, they will give. As an example, the equine department(s) at CSU have greatly benefitted from donor funding.


As far as I can discern there is very little overt corruption in Fort Collins. I find city employees well educated and thoughtful. They value information and when making decisions they look for other comparable situations and try to find best practices. The city as a whole is conservative in the sense that it likes the comfortable and conventional. We try to do the same as everybody else, just do it a little better.

Under Tony Frank, CSU is following a similar strategy. I think the CSU administration is well aware of the forces shaping the university system and is doing its conventional best to make sure that CSU ends up large enough and well enough endowed to survive the coming storms in higher education.

Tony Frank was made president of CSU in 2008. He has spearheaded the largest CSU expansion in decades, perhaps ever. The last major expansion was part of the post WWII restructuring of higher education. This is a perfect time for expansion largely because interest rates are at historic lows. The Board of Regents has viewed Tony Frank’s tenure positively and in 2015 he was made chancellor of the CSU system, which includes multiple campuses throughout the state.

During his tenure Frank devoted attention to all CSUs customers. Increasing enrollment brings in increasing tuition and fees. Much of the capital improvement money has been spent on the student tuition leg of the funding sources, improving and updating dorms, the rec center and the student union. Dorms have been improved. Faculty is aligned to the goal of bringing in more research grants. In the past few years a concerted campaign has aimed, successfully, at bringing in more donor money. Let's not talk about state government.

Sometime around 2011 Tony Frank made a marketing decision that both out of state student enrollment and large donor giving would be improved with a more visible and successful athletic program including an on-campus football stadium. Let me make this clear. I think the on campus stadium was a marketing decision made around 2011 before any public deliberation. Tony Frank as university president chose to build an on campus stadium. The only question afterwards was how to best implement that decision.

In December 2011 Jack Graham was hired as Athletic Director to implement this marketing plan. Within two months a "feasibility study" was started for a new stadium. The study was duly produced and in late 2012 Tony Frank recommended a new stadium to the CSU Board. This was followed by two years of PR bungling.

The stadium was popular with rich CSU donors and the athletics department. It was popular with no one else. The faculty members I have spoken with think the stadium is idiotic. The student body is divided, but largely opposed. Within the city a group, "Save our Stadium" formed to oppose the new stadium.

CSU and the city created a committee to look at stadium impacts. I had the bad fortune to watch one of these meetings on cable television. Representatives from CSU and the architecture/construction firms simply refused to answer any questions. My recollection of one exchange is: "How tall will the stadium be?" "We don't have an exact answer for that. We'll try to find out some information and get it to you later."

There is a real science to getting buy in for an existing decision. The stadium outreach violated many of the rules and it failed. One basic rule is to never give opponents the notion that the basic decision can be changed. Rather than creating support, the outreach created resentment and opposition. Fund raising proceeded but slower than hoped.

In a bold move, on August 8 of 2014 Frank simply fired his athletic director, Jack Graham. Within four months a new decision making process looking at alternatives was created and completed. The committee was given four alternatives and chose two of those as most viable. In the end, Tony Frank modified the options and chose to go with his original 2011 decision. A new stadium owned and operated by CSU would be built on campus.

Ground was broken and, in agreement with the city, a new Stadium Advisory Committee was created. This committee has the limited scope of trying to improve the operation of the already approved stadium. CSU has bent over backwards to be transparent, listen to the neighbors and not make the same mistakes twice. The stadium will be quieter and less bright than it might have been because CSU listened and spent money to satisfy its neighbors.


If my analysis is correct, all of this seems rational and perhaps even inevitable given the cultural environment. There is only one real casualty, the university itself.

There are probably as many opinions on the nature and purpose of a university as there are people. I am giving my point of view as someone who spent a lot of time as a student, both undergraduate and graduate. I am a parent of four children who graduated from college. I am currently owner of a business that caters to the university crowd. When my children started college I thought a lot about what I hoped for them to learn in their higher education

Historically, universities have been self-perpetuating institutions based on both educating societal elites and allowing intellectuals the freedom to advance human knowledge. I contend that the institutions have been successful in inverse proportion to their integration into the commercial structure of the society. There are exceptions. Land grant colleges in the United States have focused on practical farm research and, along with farm extension programs, have revolutionized agriculture in the U.S. multiple times. On the whole though, the most successful research programs have been those where the goal is pure knowledge. The application of that knowledge has not been the concern of the school or the professors.

It is on the science side where commercial results are most immediately apparent, but the academic developers of calculus, differential geometry, physics (classical, relativistic, and quantum), chemistry, evolution, and genetics have been concerned with basic understanding the world. All of these areas, which underlie so much of our commerce, were created without any possible awareness of commercial applications. Academic competition, jealousy, and infighting is as old as the institutions. Holding research private and patenting academic discoveries is relatively new. These developments potentially make some needed money for the institutions, but hinder long-term human advancement. Einstein once said, "I refuse to make money out of my science. My laurel is not for sale like so many bales of cotton."

On the education side, particular skills have always been less important than the ability to understand and adapt to the world. It is important to have a deep understanding or skill in something or other, but the importance comes from the fact that once you have one deep skill, it is easier to acquire a second or third. When the WWII veterans came out of college, they created a vital society
There were many factors involved: monetary policy, size of cohort, delay in starting families... Higher education helped the veterans by giving them particular knowledge and skills, but also because they understood more broadly and could see further than the less educated.

The emphasis on running the university as a business enhances funding and fosters efficiency. It also ties research to commercial results and chokes off longer-term thinking. It reduces the quality of education by increasing class sizes and putting more responsibility for basic education onto the least experienced members of the faculty community. If you read the Feynman lectures on physics one of the most illuminating aspects is the sheer clarity of mind and broadness of vision that is apparent from simply being in the presence of well educated genius. Fewer undergraduates experience this as we put more graduate students, adjunct faculty, and junior faculty members in charge of teaching.

Big college athletics serves no research or educational purpose. Very few students participate in the marquee sports and those students are largely segregated from the rest of the campus. Every dispassionate study of finances shows that the programs never pay for themselves. Many people get rich off college athletics, but the only function of big athletics within the university is marketing to two audiences: modern day barons who can contribute to endowments and potential out of state students who bring more revenue when they enroll.

The direct appeal to the barons is obvious in the design of the CSU stadium. Roughly one quarter of the facility is set aside for luxury accommodations some served by a separate elevator to keep the moneyed from the hoi polloi. The more you pay the university, the better your experience will be: better seats, more amenities and better parking. Students sit in the cheap seats across from their betters. In addition to watching, cheering, and identifying with the university, they can stare and wish for riches that will enable them to join the barons. Those with money can use a display of wealth as a way to court influence within their circles. This is a standard feature of modern spectator sports. In the Stadium Advisory Group some members have suggested that the prices are too low and that raising prices to the maximum level possible will make the most desirable spots a better way to display wealth and influence. It will also help pay for the stadium.

The choice of football as the main sport to market is obvious, trite, and tragic. It is obvious because of the popularity of the sport. It is trite, because every institution trying to make it to the top tier is doing exactly the same thing. It is tragic for a number of reasons. The first is consolidation of sports money is already occurring. Fewer institutions are getting larger and larger shares of the pie. That means that many second tier schools, perhaps CSU, will fail in their attempts to cover stadium costs by using sports to lure out of state students and donor money.

The choice of football is also tragic because it plays to the worst part of human nature and actually hinders the education of students. Football is a purely spectator sport. People feel kinship based on team affiliation, but they do not do anything to actually improve themselves or the team (except spending money). In football, the identification comes at the expense of the athletes themselves. The vast majority of athletes, even at the top ranks of university athletics, do not make a career of their sports. CSU makes a genuine attempt through its academic programs to support these young people who are trying to get an education at the same time as having a physically demanding, unpaid, full time athletic job. Time after time we have seen in college athletics that as the money pressures rise, so does the temptation to cut corners and win at the expense of the athletes. With what we have discovered about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the current form of the game cannot continue for more than a generation or so. The fans are rabid, the money is great, but more and more parents will stop allowing their children to risk brain injury to play. This will dry the pool of available talent.

Learning how to take care of ourselves and others is an important part of becoming an educated functioning adult. If you look at people in their forties, fifties, and beyond you will find healthy adults who run, swim, bike, play tennis, golf, baseball, basketball, racquetball, ski, and snowboard. You do not find football players. The activity is simply not consonant with maintaining health. The notion of spectator sports instead of participatory sports is at antithetical to the core of the university missions.


One of my rules of thumb is: If you want a great organization, don't put the money men/women in charge. In any organization, the money must work out. If you put the money men/women in charge, only the money works out. Everything else, including the reasons in the organization exists, suffers.

As a software professional, my career has centered on new product development. Often this is as a consultant to large organizations that wish to update their technology. The obvious reason to bring in outsiders is to get specialized expertise, but there is a cultural reason as well. People who are charged with maintaining and incrementally improving existing systems develop a conservative mindset. Many people charged with operational systems cannot cope with the uncertainty of new development. Conversely, many people in new development cannot cope with being confined to meticulously tracking potential problems.

The same kind of cultural dynamic probably occurs within the university. The skills necessary for the maintenance and gradual change of a university are different from the skills needed for major expansions. Major expansions require expensive and risky decisions that are made quickly. It is inherently a gamble on the future. The decision makers have to create a political environment where people feel involved but the pace of change is not slowed or halted.

In big college athletics the game is to quickly build a team and win more than you lose. As a coach, you either win or you are fired. If you win, you can leave and move up the coaching ladder to a bigger program with more resources. If you get fired, you move down the ladder.

In new software product development, once the job is done, the excitement subsides and the developers most instrumental in getting things done quickly move on. They are invested in the problem solving and the building, not the end result or the institution. The same is probably true for people involved in university expansion. The thrill is building the physical assets, creating the winning team. When that is completed, the tendency is to move on to the next place that needs this type of expansion.

The average tenure of a university president is about 8.5 years. Athletic directors last about 5 years. Football coaches, 4 years. For all these positions, the professional track usually moves the person from institution to institution. It is rare that these professionals "grew up" in the institution where he or she is president/athletic director/coach. Because their job tenure is much shorter than a career, people in these professions have to be more concerned with the job and their personal progress rather than the institution. Contrast this with faculty who tend to marry their institution and may very well stay with the same school for their entire professional life.

The highest paid people at CSU are associated with big budget sports (men's football and basketball coaches) and university administrators. These areas take increasing amounts of the overall labor budget. That is, we are paying the most for the people whose ties to the institution are weakest.

Following conventional wisdom gives a conventional strategy. Everyone following the same strategy competes for talent, driving up prices. When institutional loyalty is low, a larger paycheck and personal advancement are even greater lures. In addition, people naturally value their own work and value those who are like them. Administrators are likely to pay administrators more.

The end result of the current strategy is to invest large amounts of money into activities (athletics, creature comforts, administration) that are, at best, peripheral to the core of the university mission. The focus on money and business related metrics undermine faculty morale and lose the long-term research focus of the institution. The course may be inevitable in a culture based on business that does not value learning or education except as it helps commerce. The course may be inevitable, but it is also regrettable.

1 comment:

Michael Gerety said...

Nice piece of work. Great writing. Thank you.