Higher Education Can Take A Lesson from WVU 

© Rene A. Henry


            America’s colleges and universities could take a lesson from West Virginia University on the message that needs to be communicated to the general public.


            Millions of dollars of free advertising time went to waste during the recent NCAA “March Madness” basketball tournament.  If the NCAA, various conferences and colleges and universities wanted to win public financial support for higher education, they lost.


            You could take any random number of commercials produced by the institutions, switch the names and no one would know the difference.  Most appeared to be produced only to give alumni bragging rights and with no central message.  They generally opened with a bell tower, showed students walking across campus and then with professors in a laboratory.  Not one really told the American public how they benefited from what higher education was doing with their tax dollars. 


            That could be one reason so many public universities who once claimed to be “state supported” became “state assisted.”  Some today just say they are “state located” when it comes to the percentage of total expenses paid for by state funds.


            I was fortunate to recently hear David C. Hardesty, Jr., president of West Virginia University, say what his institution was doing for the people of his state.  He said that research indicates that the states get a return of $10 on every $1 invested in WVU. 


            Hardesty also pointed out some of the other good things the university is doing for the people in the state:  university physicians provide $50 million of charity care each year; law students give 11,000 hours of free legal services; students give 100,000 hours of community service; 3,600 new and experienced miners are trained in safety each year through the Mining Extension Service; 30,000 children participate in summer reading programs; state farmers are increasing sales $1 million a year by participating in university programs; the university trained 17,500 volunteer firefighters from around the state and U.S. last year.


            And, the university’s math department earned $739,000 of national grant money to support math education in Appalachian middle schools; 97,000 people subscribe to WVU’s small-community water resource publications; more than 340 companies are involved in energy saving research projects; and 100 new histories of West Virginia war veterans are now recorded in the archives of the Library of Congress.


            The citizens of West Virginia truly benefit from their flagship university in Morgantown.  If the presidents of other universities started letting taxpayers in their states know how they directly benefited, chances are legislators in their state capitols would start increasing, not decreasing support for higher education.


            Private institutions are affected as well.  When money is needed, the colleges and universities go to the public for support.  With federal programs being cut or reprioritized, competition for all available funds is extremely competitive.


            More than 10 years ago, I directed a program at Texas A&M to gain support from the legislature.  Just as consumer products companies use research to determine the message and media to use, research told us the message our public wanted to hear and to direct it at sports fans.  It worked.  Instead of a mandated 10 percent budget cut, the legislature increased spending nearly 7 percent which represented a swing of more than $1.5 billion.


The former Southwest Conference further launched its own successful program which unfortunately ended when the Big XII Conference was established.  Some of the most professional commercials then were produced by the Big 10 when Miles Brand, the current head of the NCAA, was president of Indiana.  These also ended after only several years.


            The NCAA, and the Big East, should follow the leadership of David C. Hardesty, Jr. who connects directly with the state’s taxpayers and lets them know how West Virginia University is giving back and why it is one of the best investments the legislature can make for the economy and well being of the state.