SHARE

The New 'A

The New 'A
June 16, 2009

Here’s a ray of hope to restore prestige and morale to our beleaguered flagship state universities: let’s have “A&M” stand for “Athletics & Medicine.”

It’s a sorely needed change from the archaic 19th century acronym, “Agricultural & Mechanical.” This branding will provide state universities with both a jump start and truth in advertising about their priorities. After more than a quarter century of grumbling by presidents that they are losing resources and falling behind their elite private research university counterparts, public higher education has an opportunity to put new wine into the old A&M bottle. After all, “Athletics & Medicine” are the front doors and neon signs that now showcase an enterprising, dynamic state university.

Who will miss the old “A&M”? At most only a few curmudgeons. The change is timely because at many land grant universities the traditional “A” already has tended to disappear. Consider the case of the University of California, Berkeley, for example, where the historic, famous College of Agriculture has changed its name to the “College of Natural Resources.” What about the “M”? Originally it meant “mechanics” -- a 19th century usage that approximates our notion of “engineering.” But “Mechanics” has little name recognition today and can be confusing because it is likely to bring to mind the vocational training programs in auto repair or air conditioning service provided by community colleges. In other words, the old “A&M” shell is vacant and ready to accommodate the new contenders, “Athletics & Medicine.”

Let’s consider the strengths and similarities of this dynamic duo. First, both represent high profile units of the university. Second, both are not only highly visible, they also are seen as indispensable. Third, both are expensive -- they bring in a lot of resources and also spend a lot. Fourth, both activities are integral to the local economy through services, construction, and employment. The new “A&M” also retains fidelity to the historic land grant service mission. Hospitals and clinics certainly represent health service to the public. And big time athletics can even make a case for itself.

Two years ago a commissioner of a major athletics conference said in earnest that at the state universities in his conference, football ought to be regarded as a form of public service. True, this is not exactly the same as providing extension assistance on crop rotation -- but who’s to say that a state university team in the BCS championship or in the NCAA basketball Final Four has not reached out to the entire state’s population?

Academic Medical Centers (AMC) have represented a story of growth in the past decade. A College of Medicine and its affiliates can no longer be described as merely one of many academic units because it has achieved a size, prestige and power that have transformed its presence. It’s not unusual for a medical center and related health sciences nowadays to constitute more than half of a flagship university’s faculty positions.

Furthermore, for a university with an annual operating budget of about $2 billion, the Academic Medical Center often accounts for 40 percent or more of the total university expenditures.

Athletics and Medicine provide an interesting symmetry in hiring, as both share the ability to compete for talent in a high priced market. Hiring a new coach can, for example, be balanced by hiring a researcher with an M.D. and Ph.D. whose work deals with finding a cure for a serious disease. And, both new hires command a retinue of assistants, staff, and incentive bonuses to supplement base salaries. They are together the super stars of academia.

A flagship state university anchored on one end of the campus with the big “A” and anchored on the other end by the big “M” is formidable. Both units command new, expensive facilities -- which often become obsolete relatively quickly. And the expanding, large facilities mean that the two units occupy a substantial percentage of campus real estate.

There are, of course, a few liabilities in showcasing Athletics and Medicine as the new “A&M.” Although both bring in a lot of money, whether in television revenues, ticket sales, major donations, Medicaid payments, federal grants, or fees from clinics, these fertile sources can be precarious.

Six years ago, for example, an article in the Los Angeles Times reported that UCLA’s medical center “struggled for months with wobbly finances and internal dissension,” characterized by a consulting firm’s report as “problems ranging from inconsistent billing and plummeting revenues to a disorganized administration in which job duties overlapped.” Perhaps the best example of the financial fragility of the expensive university medical centers came about a decade ago at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. -- where a shortfall in the medical center income led the university president to try to impose an internal tax on the law school and business school as a convenient source of medical center fiscal fitness.

Today, a university medical center typically faces three sources of financial risk: first, a downturn in number of patients, and empty hospital beds run up expenses quickly. Second, any reduction in the federal Medicaid or Medicare reimbursement rate will require university medical centers to reduce drastically their income projections. Third, although many academic medical centers enjoy financial autonomy due to their own large endowments, these have quickly become undependable. It’s not unprecedented, for example, that a university medical center endowment of $250 million in 2007 (most of which was earmarked to pay for an aggressive capital expansion and building program) by 2009 has shrunk about 40% down to $150 million -- a one year loss of $100 million due to unproductive investment choices. If and when these shortfalls do occur, most likely the state government and/or the university will bail out the medical center -- it’s too big, too visible, and holds too much of an investment to be abandoned by its host university.

The same dynamics hold for flagship state universities with NCAA Division I intercollegiate athletics programs. A losing season in a revenue sport such as football or men’s basketball quickly can bring a decline in ticket revenues and fewer invitations to be selected for nationally televised games. However, even if this were to happen, it’s hard to imagine a state university abandoning football or basketball. The programs have become so important that their expenses must be covered, even if that were to mean transferring resources from other parts of the university.

What about the consequences for other academic units located on campus between the anchors of Athletics and Medicine? One possible concern is the endurance of the “A&S” acronym for “Arts & Sciences.” Since this unit probably has increased difficulty in claiming primacy in the contemporary state university, a possible reform is to amend their branding to reflect a new, diminished status. “A&S” could be re-branded as “a & s” – lower case to connote shrinking budgets, deteriorating centrality, and reduced visibility.

Numerous recent articles have carried the message that public higher education must reconfigure and re-think its priorities and principles. The “New A&M” model featuring Athletics and Medicine provides a timely, dynamic blueprint for updating the historic land grant commitment.

Bio

John Thelin is professor of educational policy studies at the University of Kentucky. He’s the author of A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press).

 

 

Please review our commenting policy here.

Most

  • Viewed
  • Commented
  • Past:
  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year
Loading results...
Back to Top