Taking a gamble on FAU

faurendering.jpg

The line on FAU sports

John Kelly has bet Florida Atlantic University’s future on sports.

FAU’s president will bet with money from the Schmidt Family Foundation and from what he hopes will be many other major donors. The announcement Tuesday of a $16 million lead gift toward the Schmidt Family Complex for Academic and Athletic Excellence (rendering above) is the start of Kelly’s push to make FAU, in Kelly’s words, a “national university” with “unbridled ambition.”

Consider that 30 years ago FAU remained the two-year, upper-division college it had been when starting out in 1964. Consider that when Anthony Catanese became president in 1990 his first job was to persuade powerful Broward County legislators not to emasculate FAU by creating a new university in Broward.

No one, though, will accuse Kelly of having bridled ambition. He met with the Schmidt Foundation not long after starting work in March. No surprise there. The name of a Schmidt family member already is on the medical school and the colleges of arts and letters and science. The $16 million gift tops by $1 million the previous biggest gift to FAU—by the Schmidts.

Yet FAU is presenting this gift as transformational. For that prediction to come true, FAU will have to reach far beyond the very generous Schmidt family. The new, 185,000-square-foot complex will cost what Kelly estimates to be between $45 million and $50 million, and Kelly told me that he will be “very disappointed” if the entire project is not complete in two years.

Athletic Director Pat Chun said FAU is “having a dialogue with several families” who are potential donors. Using the Schmidt Foundation gift, construction will start soon on the academic center portion of the complex, which will replace the first floor of a parking garage west of the football stadium. Clearly, Kelly hopes that a work in progress will motivate more donors than a rendering. The complex also is to include facilities for sports medicine, strength and conditioning and health and wellness, plus an indoor training facility.

Though Chun, Football Coach Charlie Partridge and Women’s Basketball Coach Kellie Lewis-Jay were at Tuesday’s announcement, this is not a sports story—it’s an FAU story. Kelly, who worked at Clemson and Ohio State, believes that a bigger commitment to sports will enable a bigger commitment to academics and speed what Kelly wants to be FAU’s shift to more of a four-year, on-campus university. The goal is for the new complex to be “holistic,” involving not just athletes but students from many programs, such as health and sports management.

Basically, Kelly wants to market FAU through sports. He cited the spike in applicants to Boise State University in Idaho after the football team began winning big and appearing in bowl games. Kelly told me Tuesday that FAU soon will hire a consultant to “recruit students internationally” and to “redefine the university” away from its role as a regional player in the State University System. In the spring, Kelly said, FAU will hire a consultant to “assess conditions” for a major capital campaign on top of the push for the academic-athletic complex.

FAU can find examples to support the benefits of sports-driven marketing. In 2012-13, Texas A&M University’s fundraising campaign brought in $740 million—$300 million more than any previous campaign. At the time, flamboyant quarterback Johnny Manziel was winning the Heisman Trophy for A&M. Though roughly 35 percent of donations went to the athletic department, academics also did very well.

Texas A&M, though, is an established traditional university, with legions of devoted alumni who have made money in the state. The athletic department’s budget is nearly four times higher than FAU’s, which for this year is $27.4 million. Texas A&M’s Kyle Field seats 106,000 and usually is full. FAU has struggled to get crowds of 10,000 into its 30,000-seat stadium, which opened in 2011 and for which naming rights remain unsold.

If FAU students aren’t going in large numbers to the games, however, they are paying for the athletic department and the school’s 19 competitive teams. Using figures on FAU’s website, I calculated that the typical—27 credit hours—in-state, undergraduate student pays $466.29 per year in fees to subsidize the athletic department. Their counterparts at Florida State pay less than half that amount.

In 2012, USA Today calculated how much each major-college athletic department receives in subsidies as part of its budget. For FAU, the percentage was almost 68 percent. It was even higher—78 percent—at Florida International University in Miami-Dade County, another ex-commuter school seeking to rebrand itself.

Further, an NCAA study covering the years from 2004 through 2013 found that at most universities athletic revenues were not keeping up with expenses. The athletic department at Auburn, which last year played for the national championship in football, lost money. Bowl games have become loss leaders for many teams. They don’t make money; the goal is to raise the profile.

As Kelly was announcing the $16 million gift, the University of Alabama-Birmingham—which plays in Conference USA with FAU—was announcing that the school will drop football, due to “fiscal reality.” UAB has roughly the same athletic budget as FAU, and isn’t in much worse shape than similar schools in the five lower-tier conferences trying to keep up with those in the five major conferences that dominate TV schedules and stand to benefit most in the new college sports landscape.

So after John Kelly, the person most responsible for FAU’s future is Charley Partridge. As Kelly acknowledged, for his vision to materialize, “You need a winning team.” FAU went 3-9 in his first season, but Partridge recruited this area for other schools and Kelly praises him. Partridge said an indoor facility would keep the team from having to practice in the morning, to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. FAU may envision the new complex as “holistic,” but the goal is to help Partridge recruit better players.

Is Kelly nuts to bet so much on the idea that success at sports can raise what Chun calls “the self-esteem” of a university? You’ve just read a lot of reasons for why he is. Here is the case for why he isn’t.

Change is sweeping through higher education, as it is health care. Some hospitals won’t survive. Neither will some universities. Florida, like many states, is cutting the public share of money to universities. FAU could continue to recruit on-campus students regionally, but this year the number of dorm students dropped. “Students from within 40 or 50 miles,” Kelly said, “tend to live at home.”

Out-of-state and international students live on or near campus. They pay nearly four times what in-staters pay. Kelly remains committed to creating a “university village” east of the campus in Boca Raton’s 20th Street area as part of his plan to sell FAU. He wants more prospective students to hear of FAU through sports, and then be sold on the place when they inquire. He is meeting with all the academic departments, to sell skeptical professors on his approach. Kelly has three degrees in horticulture, but in all ways at FAU he’s majoring in marketing.

Savarick on her way out

A very credible source tells me that a Boca Raton icon is preparing to depart.

Boca Raton Regional Hospital Foundation President Jan Savarick told the foundation board at its recent meeting that she intends to retire. Nothing will happen soon, I was told, but the board soon will discuss a search for Savarick’s replacement. She will stay as long as needed.

Talk about a tough act to follow. Savarick has been president of the foundation since 2009, and she has worked there for nearly 15 years. Savarick took over at the bottom of the recession. Three years later, the foundation was announcing the gift from Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus that created the neuroscience institute at the hospital in Marcus’ name. I can’t think of a classier, more successful fundraiser in this area.

Meet Mr. Cooper

Delray Beach officially has a new permanent city manager. The commission approved the contract with Don Cooper, the former manager of Port St. Lucie, at its meeting Tuesday night.

Also at that meeting, the commission made some good changes to the agreement approving the Delray Preserve apartment complex on North Federal Highway. The buildings must be arranged to make the project more compatible with the Kokomo Key neighborhood to the south. Also, the city will be more protected from any problems related to trucks passing through to work on the project or to remove dredged material from the property to the east, which the Florida Inland Navigation District owns. FIND uses the land to deposit material from dredging on the Intracoastal Waterway.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

For more City Watch blogs, click here.About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.

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Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.