Monday, November 23, 2009

UI's Basketball Fees Self-Defeating

November 23, 2009, 6:15 a.m.

Rational Rationing of Recreation
(brought to you by*)

How much should pick-up basketball players have to pay to walk onto the floor of the UI Field House south gym?

Paul Donaldson not only thinks it should cost nothing, he documents why it's self-defeating to do otherwise. Paul Donaldson, "UI decision on Field House hurts city," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 19, 2009.

I agree.
. . . but first, here are links to earlier entries on some of the other hot topics from the past week or so that are now getting the most direct hits, among which may be the entries you are looking for:

UIHC, Regents and UI.
I'll drink to that: "UI Has A Drinking Problem," November 18, 2009 [see "Updates," below];

If UI has become a for-profit corporation . . .: "Corporatizing the University of Iowa; If We're Going to Do It, Let's Do It Right," November 17, 2009

Strategic Communications VP position: "Strategic Communications a Failed Strategy; Actions Speak Louder," November 13, 2009 [See "Updates," below]

Executives trip to Disney World: "Mickey Mouse Patient Satisfaction; UIHC's Troubles: Is Orlando the Answer?" November 8, 2009

"Contributions from patients" proposal: "UIHC: 'Sick Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?'; A Check-In and a Check," October 31, 2009, 7:00 a.m. (with numerous updates through November 4, links to additional, related material -- and now with over 30 of the Press-Citizen readers' comments on B.A. Morelli's stories) [see "Updates," below]

Board of Regents and State universities' budget cutting: "Cutting Slack, Cutting Budgets; Regents, University Presidents, Deserve Some Thanks and Credit," October 30, 2009, 8:30 a.m. (with links to prior, related blog entries)

Spence break-in grand jury proceedings: "UI Spence Break-In: Gazette Scoop Illustrates Issues," October 27, 2009 [See "Updates," below]

School boundaries, school boards, and the ICCSD.
"School Board Election: Now Work Begins; It's Swisher, Dorau, Cooper; Old Board 'Starting Off Backing Up' With Consultant and Tough Decisions," September 9, 2009, 7:00 a.m. (with its links to 11 prior and related blog entries including, for example, "School Boundaries Consultant Folly; Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board, Not Consultants or Superintendent, Plus: What Consultant Could Do," and "Cluster Schools: Potential for IC District?")

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Has Work to Do," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 2, 2009 (and reproduced in blog)

"Boundaries: Only Board Can Do Board's Job; Drawing School Boundaries Made Easy," November 2, 2009

And Updates: UI VP Medical Jean Robillard says patient-donation-dunning plan "canceled a week ago"; spokesperson "clarifies," says "canceled" means "under review," B.A. Morelli, "Leaders Address Employee Concerns; UI Officials: No Decision on Job Issues," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 20, 2009, p. A3; Ashley Oerman, "UI Cancels Asking Patients for Money," The Daily Iowan, November 20, 2009, p. A1; UI's Funded Retirement Insurance Committee asks President Mason to "abolish rather than just delay" UIHC's "patient donation plan," B.A. Morelli, "Group Wants UIHC Patient Donation Plan Nixed," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 19, 2009, p. A1;

Two Spence break-in grand jury witnesses jailed for refusal to testify, one now indicted, "UI Spence Break-In: Gazette Scoop Illustrates Issues," October 27, 2009; Anonymous, "Davenport Grand Jury Subpoena for Scott DeMuth," Nov. 11, 2009; "Two jailed for refusing to testify before grand jury," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 17, 2009; Carrie Feldman's Web site and the new "Support Carrie and Scott!"; "Activist indicted for alleged role in Spence Labs vandalism," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 19, 2009 [in hard copy as "Man Indicted for Animal Terrorism," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 20, 2009, p. A1]; Ann McGlynn, "Activist who refused grand jury testimony now charged with conspiracy," Quad City Times, November 19, 2009; Ann McGlynn and Diane Heldt, "Lab Break-in Charge Pleases UI Officials," The Gazette, November 20, 2009, p. A1; Regina Zilbermints, "Man Charged in Spence Action," The Daily Iowan, November 20, 2009, p. A1; Ann McGlynn, "Animal rights activist pleads not guilty in University of Iowa vandalism," Quad City Times, November 20, 2009; Zack Kucharski, "Judge Orders Animal Rights Activist Held," Quad City Times, November 26, 2009;

Press-Citizen editorial: Hold off on VP for Strategic Communications: Editorial, "Stakes Have Risen for UI's Strategic Communication," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 20, 2009, p. A7 ("it's wrong when UI seems to care more about finding the right way to spin its decisions than about making the right decisions in the first place. The best strategy for UI communication is for officials to be more forthright and to show more common sense.");

Press-Citizen editorializes for 21-only, Editorial, "21-Only Still an Option for Bars with PAULAs," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 19, 2009, p. A7.

Let me make clear at the outset what this argument is not about, and then itemize some of the issues it does present.

The UI's Division of Recreational Services is proposing to charge for use of the Field House -- including the south gym basketball courts. Whether it should charge for that use is the only question.

No one is proposing that everything in the Field House should be free to public and students alike -- leaving it to the University and Iowa's taxpayers to figure out how to pay for it.

There are literally 170 categories of recreational equipment, facilities and services for which UI charges fees. University of Iowa, Division of Recreational Services, Fees. The only one at issue is the proposal to charge players in pick-up basketball games for the use of the courts in the south gym.

While one might argue about the level of some of these 170 fees, presumably most would concede that there is a legitimate reason to charge for services provided by trainers, equipment that is loaned out and then lost or damaged, facilities such as weights rooms with expensive equipment that must be maintained, personal lockers, or use of a major swimming pool. These are, after all, things for which one would expect to pay when provided by for-profit businesses.

But free access to basketball courts, indoors and especially outdoors, are an American tradition that has been a part of the lives of millions of young American boys and girls -- up to and including the current President of the United States.

This is not to say that there are no expenses associated with the south gym. It must be heated, lit, the floors maintained, and occasionally cleaned. It is only to say that a gym does not require the maintenance costs of a swimming pool, the personnel costs of personal trainers, the loss or damage of equipment, the servicing of weights machines -- nor does it involve the direct, individual, personal benefit of a private locker.

The incremental costs associated with one additional basketball player are somewhere between so infinitesimal as to be immeasurable and zero.

Here are some of the issues I see in this controversy.

UI's Iowa culture and charm. A part of the UI's Iowa culture and charm has been an open campus and unspoken reluctance to impose charges, administrative paperwork, rules, regulations, and ID-passes until a problem requires response. Classroom and office buildings are open to the public. Anyone can wander into the Main Library (one of the nation's first to offer "open stacks") to read the books or use the computers. The UI's hospital is open to anyone who wants to eat in its public cafeteria, listen to the noontime piano, view the art or museum, or just admire the architecture and views from the top floors. When speakers are brought to Iowa City by the UI Lecture Committee their presentations are available to the public at no charge. Undergraduates who like to study in the law library are permitted to do so.

Of course, when 70,000 football fans would otherwise be looking for restrooms, the hospital across the street from the stadium has to lock down and screen patients and their visitors through a single entrance. And if the day ever came when there was no longer room for law faculty and students in the law library, that problem would be addressed. But when there's a campus practice that's not causing problems we tend to avoid regulation for the sake of regulation.

We take this openness and freedom for granted. See generally, Nicholas Johnson, "Corporatizing the University of Iowa; If We're Going to Do It, Let's Do It Right," November 17, 2009 (especially the paragraph beginning, "I can remember a different day.").

But as I've accepted visiting professorships and lecture invitations from dozens of colleges and universities around the country I've not found these precious Iowa values to be widely shared.

So the maintenance of this aspect of the UI's Iowa culture and values are one reason to preserve free access to the basketball courts.

Hawkeyes' Basketball. Not to dwell upon it, but based on the recent record of the Hawkeyes' basketball team, I'd say the more Iowans we have playing basketball for the fun of it the better it will be for our success in future recruiting (a recruiting effort that has produced precious few Iowans).

Nickel and diming. I've written before about the downside of small charges that produce more hostility, and less revenue, than the administrative hassle is worth. See generally, Nicholas Johnson, "Nickel and Diming Don't Make Sense; How is MidAmerican Like a Country Club? They Both Have Membership Fees," August 7, 2009 (e.g., expensive hotels' charges for breakfast and local calls (which cheap motels provide for free), or mechanics' extra charge for "rags").

The most recent UI example is the UIHC's decision to cancel free parking, pushing even this additional charge onto patients -- adding expensive insult to injury while they wait hours past their appointment times running up the parking charges -- and then simultaneously proposing to take patients' financial donations before taking their blood pressure.

Even if we were to charge, what's a reasonable fee to make someone pay who wants to bounce a ball on a floor for 15 minutes while trying to make it go through a little metal hoop? Surely not much.

My guess is that the administrative costs of monitoring who can, and cannot, play basketball on the south gym courts, coupled with the decline in use by those who can't, or won't, pay the fees, might well end up producing yet another example of counterproductive "nickel and diming."

Community values. And now, since it was Paul Donaldson's op ed column that brought this issue to my attention, I'll let excerpts from it tell what Paul Harvey used to call "the rest of the story":
The Field House South Gym community of pickup basketball players will be destroyed unless it is exempted from the fee proposal.

Currently these basketball courts are a place where people from widely diverse backgrounds connect. This is the only place I've personally seen a Palestinian (member of the public) and a Jew (UI student) working together. High school dropouts and medical graduate students, pros and amateurs, from junior high age kids to some 60-plus years old, guys and girls, all find a place in the South Gym where we can come together, and in many cases share much more than basketball. When opportunities for people to connect like this are lost, everyone stands to lose.

Who will be excluded? I'm certain a black 19-year-old I know from playing basketball in the South Gym will not be able to afford a new fee. He just finished high school and is on his own. He has a child and lives with the mother of his child. . . . Will it make a difference if he and others like him no longer have the Field House outlet?

I see so many kids turning to gangs or parties in free time -- and yet when he has a fleeting break from responsibilities, this young man chooses the Field House. Is it beneficial for my friend to meet and know UI undergrads/graduate students? Is it beneficial for UI students to know him?

The UI Field House is currently one of the greatest "non-bar" alternatives in the Iowa City area. You can find games as late as 11 p.m. on a Friday night! A public fee will ruin this "non-bar" community. [See the related, Nicholas Johnson, "UI Has a Drinking Problem," November 18, 2009.] We all share a high cost for losing it. . . .

Economic, cultural, religious and educational barriers break down in this place in ways seldom found elsewhere. Is money truly more important than community? If the distance between the haves and have-nots grows wider and the walls between people grow taller, don't we all pay a price? The current UI Field House is a model for other colleges and universities to follow; not one to abandon so that it's "like the others." . . .
To recap: The UI must somehow, somewhere, find the money to operate its programs. No one is suggesting otherwise. Moreover, this blog entry, and Paul Donaldson's column, do not challenge 169 of the 170 fees charged by UI Recreational Services. But we both believe there are enormous community benefits to continuing the ability of pick-up basketball players to spend time, at no personal cost, on the south gym basketball courts. The revenue that fees could create wouldn't amount to much anyway. The administrative cost of collecting it, and monitoring who is, and is not, permitted to enter the gym, will offset much of even that modest income. And it will be perceived -- fairly -- as an ill-considered, and somewhat mean spirited, "nickel and diming" of the community, one that will produce far more harm in terms of public relations than could possibly be offset with the revenue.

Don't do it. The UI has far more public relations disasters these days than it can handle as it is -- with or without a "Vice President for Strategic Communications."
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
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Anonymous said...

The Univ of Iowa needs to understand that as a revenue generating business, it cannot exhibit the same relatively arrogant and negligent behaviors as an academic institution can often exhibit, because it is 'understood' the academic institution operates on some fees, some aid, some grants, and some donations.

Go to the U of Iowa fieldhouse. Notice the rather poor upkeep in most of the facilities. Equipment is in various states of disrepair. Go to the locker rooms. Observes the horrible hygiene tolerated there. The floors are cesspools of spit and sweat and slime and fungus and who knows what else. This is tolerated because the users accpet that schools have serious budget concerns (and also lazy recreational managers).

When Iowa starts charging for use of these facilities, they better damn well start maintaining the facility in a manner appropriate to an exercise gym business. No more slime all over the floors, no more broken and dangerous equipment, no more lax enforcement of rules.

The academic institutions want to eat their cake and have it too. They want to fund raise as a charity, to accept volunteers as a humanitarian endeavor, but yet they continuously state their goals are REVENUE, not some ideal of academic bliss.

News flash to Univ of Iowa managers: You want to operate like a 'for profit' Corp, then we will treat you like any other shoddy business out there -- lawsuits, liability, complaints, and likely avoidance of your third rate facilities.

People tolerate crappy dorm food because it is a college dorm. You start charging restaurant prices, you better start hiring waiters and chefs and think about customer service, not about how many students you can run through to maximize revenue.

Anonymous said...

One 'must read' article from Minyanville on why college may be a bad investment.

In the current environment of 'in higher education revenue now reigns supreme', college administrators want the benefits of an academic or non-profit institution, but then raise money like any other corporation. They act like for-profits, while hiding behind the benefits bestowed on educational facilities.

No more. Here is one opinion treating a college education as an investment. College comes out looking weak.

Why should parent and student pay 50,000 a year for crappy lectures, and redundant classes. As the article states an ability to think critically doesn't cost 200,000 over 4-5 years.

If college administrators wish to jump into the for-profit arena, then realize they become targets of those who analyze costs and benefits, and who don't buy into the sugar-coated 'college experience' BS that schools have long proffered.

The colleges cannot act like for-profits while professing charity philosophies.