OP-ED: March Madness: Colleges waste opportunity to gain public support

by Rene A. Henry
OP-ED: March Madness: Colleges waste opportunity to gain public support

Seattle, WA (HNN)  – It’s that time of the year again. March Madness. And colleges and universities will continue to waste millions of dollars of free advertising time that they could use to gain the public’s support for higher education.

In March,  during every game of a conference basketball tournament and the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s “Big Dance” leading to the Final Four, the colleges playing in the games, their conferences and the NCAA will broadcast commercials. In fact, they all have this same opportunity during all televised college sports events. The producers of the telecast give the commercial air time free to the institutions.

 For years now state legislators have slowly been destroying the finest public education system in the world by continuing to slash higher education budgets. An education at any of our nation’s colleges and universities is envied by everyone on Earth. Now Congress, with its infinite wisdom, is getting into the act to do its part to further dumb down the system.

Higher education needs to let taxpayers know what college and universities are doing for them. Some estimates are that every dollar spent on higher education is returned to the public tenfold. And free television time is a wonderful but misused opportunity.

Only an informed and educated constituency that voted the politicians into office can influence state legislators and members of Congress to stop destroying our colleges and universities. College and university presidents and chancellors continue to whine, moan and gripe about budget cuts but do nothing to win public support. One of the easiest ways to start turning things around is to make use of the free television time.

In 1993 all of the members of the Southwest Conference were in Texas. The Texas legislature mandated a 10 percent across-the-board budget cut for higher education. Led by Texas A&M University, the SWC created and launched an aggressive campaign to regain public support. The campaign was designed to do exactly what advertisers do when selling a new product or service, car, detergent or beer. Market research showed the common denominator was sports. When the final decision came in Austin, the legislators put aside the mandated cut and increased higher education funding by more than seven percent, or a swing of $1.5 billion.

This same campaign can be used today to educate the public on how much it benefits from colleges and universities. It is a model all in higher education should follow today. However, it most likely won’t happen because the “not invented here” syndrome is so prevalent and deeply entrenched in the culture of higher education.

Starting with football games last fall and all of the televised college sports events I’ve watched since, I’ve seen hundreds of the television commercials produced by the colleges, athletic conferences and the NCAA. Take away the name of the college and you can’t tell one from another. Most show a bell tower, students walking across campus and in classrooms and labs with faculty. They do absolutely nothing to inform the viewers of the importance of higher education and why it needs support today more than ever before. If the networks who give away the free time established quality and production standards for the commercials most would never be broadcast. Higher education has blatantly wasted millions of dollars of free opportunities to tell its story.

Don’t blame the coaches or athletic directors. This is not their responsibility. The buck stops with the president and chancellors and governing boards. The next time you hear one complain about budget cuts, suggest he or she make use of available, free resources and get with it!

Rene A. Henry lives in Seattle, Washington and writes on a variety of subjects. He spent 10 years of his professional career in higher education. His latest book, “Communicating In A Crisis” has a chapter on crises in higher education. He was responsible for creating and directing the highly successful campaign at Texas A&M that was adapted by the SWC. Many of his commentaries are posted on his website at www.renehenry.com. For David M. Kinchen's review of "Communicating In A Crisis," click: http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/080930-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html


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