The University of Kentucky has recently announced a unique building project and partnership. The details can be found at UKNOW, the university’s own news site. Here are the highlights:
• A $65 million renovation and expansion of the Gatton College of Business and Economics. The $65 million project will be initially funded with $25 million in gifts and $40 million in agency bonds, approved by the legislature.
• The $100 million construction of a Science and Academic Building. The 263,000 square foot building will be funded by agency bonds and is the result of a partnership with athletics unlike any other in the country. UK Athletics will fund 65 percent of the building’s debt service ― or, in total, about $65 million.
• A $110 million renovation of Commonwealth Stadium and the Nutter Training and Recruiting Center. The project ― which will add suites and club seating, while improving the fan experience throughout the stadium ― will be paid for by agency bonds and funded through the construction of suites. UK already has a waiting list for suites.
The first thing that stands out is an athletic department building announcement, particularly one from a major program, being included in an announcement of general university projects. Yes, all of the projects were approved on the same day but it is rare to see a university present such a united front with its athletic department. Keeping with that theme, the second bullet point contains an incredible nugget: the athletics department will fund over half of the cost of a campus building completely unrelated to athletics. In fact, all three projects will be funded by the university without the use of state funds. The project is being called BBNUnited. BBN, of course, stands for Big Blue Nation, the common nickname for Kentucky’s fan base. While many athletic departments donate money to their university (often to the general scholarship fund), very few make the sort of commitment that Kentucky has.
Critics of college athletics often lament how much is spent by athletic departments. Those critics believe, sometimes mistakenly, that university money that should be for academics is being used for athletics. This is certainly an old debate that dates back to at least the 1930’s when Chicago disbanded its athletics program and left the Big Ten in an attempt to focus on academics. In turn, to improve its enrollment and academics, Michigan State invested heavily in athletics and claimed the vacant spot in the conference. Details about the Chicago/Michigan State debate can be found in this book.
More recently, Spellman College similarly disbanded its Division III athletic program last fall. Citing concerns over spending one million dollars each year to benefit 80 student-athletes, the female only college decided to close the program. The money previously used for athletics will be used to support a new college-wide fitness program that will theoretically be utilized by all 2,100 students.
Clearly, there are vocal proponents of college athletics as well. As a result of Florida Gulf Coast’s recent tournament run, the old phrase about athletics being “the front porch of the university” has been thrown around at every chance. March Madness often highlights the good that college athletic departments can provide to a university. This includes national exposure and thousands, if not millions, of on-campus visitors each year. While it is well known that athletics can bring unmatched exposure for some universities, it is refreshing to see an athletic department so invested, literally and figuratively, in its university.