St. Bonaventure: Instead of eroding Division I athletics, use it as a tool to increase enrollment

The long tradition of Division I athletics is an asset to St. Bonaventure University, not a drain.

The long tradition of Division I athletics is an asset to St. Bonaventure University, not a drain.

The divide between academia and athletics at St. Bonaventure University isn’t unique to the institution. The fight for dollars is happening at schools across the country.

The scholars argue that their schools spend way too much on sports. The athletic types answer by saying the spending is necessary to compete. Meanwhile, it’s up to the university leaders and board members to decide what is best for their school.

St. Bonaventure is unique in that it is a small private university that supports Division I athletics – most notably a men’s basketball program that is a member of a multiple-bid NCAA tournament conference. In many ways the university is a square peg in a round hole that is mega athletics.

In a strong, three-part series, recent university graduate Shawn Campbell outlined the implications of spending on athletics at St. Bonaventure. The school – like most – is facing dwindling enrollment amidst a backdrop of increased spending on sports. One long-time professor guessed that no school in the country spends a greater percentage of its budget on athletics than does St. Bonaventure.

Campbell’s series: PART 1  |  PART 2  |  PART 3

Campbell’s academic sources indicated discontentment over lack of pay raises in recent years. They have directed their anger at athletics and the millions spent annually to support the school’s 14 Division I programs. More than one professor implied that St. Bonaventure would be wise to abandon its Division I membership.

To be certain, the university must tap more into donors and fundraisers to continue to successfully operate its athletics programs in the Atlantic 10.  Division I athletics at the school can’t survive otherwise.

But the bigger financial problem at St. Bonaventure and other institutions of higher education across the country is declining enrollment – not athletic spending. Throwing the baby out with the bath water isn’t the answer.

Instead of seeking ways to erode the Division I sports tradition at the school in effort to save a few dollars, the powers that be at St. Bonaventure would be much the wiser to join together to nurture athletics.

“I think the university needs to really protect its asset. I think our position in Division I and our position in the Atlantic 10 is an asset,” a university alum and big money donor told Campbell. “It’s part of our balance sheet, and we need to protect it.”

Similarly, a member of the university’s board of trustees and St. Bonaventure alum told Campbell: “We recognize (Division I athletics) importance as a recruiting tool, we recognize its importance as a fundraising opportunity at the university, we recognize its importance as far as reputational concerns go at a university.”

At least somebody gets it.

Right or wrong, St. Bonaventure is known nationally because of its athletics, particularly men’s basketball. The team plays a number of games on national television every year. It garnered media attention from USA Today and the New York Times, among others, after winning the Atlantic 10 and advancing to the NCAA tournament in 2012.

Athletics puts the school in front of people who otherwise would never have heard or learned of St. Bonaventure. No academic aspect of the university can provide the university such wide-spread visibility and marketing prowess.

Declining enrollment isn’t the fault of athletics. But athletics can help but put more bodies in dorm rooms and classrooms on campus.

It is unfortunate and frustrating that the school’s president doesn’t completely understand the impact popular sports can have on student recruitment.

“We’ve asked that question,” president Sister Margaret Carney told Campbell. “Unless you are a student-athlete coming to play, for the rest of the students, it’s not the characteristic that makes them want to be here.”

Clearly, Sr. Carney isn’t an expert in marketing. A better question to ask might be: “How did you hear about us?” or “What piqued your interest in St. Bonaventure?”

Division I athletics might not be driving factor – or even a factor at all – in attracting students to attend St. Bonaventure. But sports unquestionably increase the school’s reach to potential students and their families, as well as its  brand recognition.

It also ramps up morale and financial support among alumni, who take special pride in sporting the brown and white colors of their university.

A men’s basketball game in the dead of winter brought hundreds of ’80s grads back to campus for a weekend this past season. Alumni weekend annually draws thousands more back for games.  And Bonnies fans always travel well to support their team on the road. Athletics gives them a reason to walk tall.

That morale and support would crumble significantly if the university wavered on its commitment to Division I and the Atlantic 10.

As one alum told Campbell: “Bonaventure is steeped in tradition, both academically and athletically, and I think that both feed off each other.”

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