How Colleges and Universities Make Investments That Count

Now more than ever it seems budgets of colleges and universities in America are stretched thin. As is true in many states, cuts to budgets in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Kansas have led to millions less for public universities. Meanwhile, Moody’s predicted the rate of private college closures would triple from 2015 - 2017 due to fiscal problems. We’ve already seen the recent shuttering of institutions like Burlington College (Vt.) and Dowling College (N.Y.), and there are surely more to come.

In an effort to stand out among more than 4,000 post-secondary institutions in America, schools have invested in everything from new dormitories and modernized IT infrastructure to college apps and on-campus food. The challenge of meeting rising operating costs while making key capital investments to remain competitive is complex, and the choices that are made can have long-standing ramifications.

At Simmons College, we are celebrating a significant capital investment that represents a unique public-private partnership with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and community organizations in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston. The partnership is the result of a five-year engagement process that involved obtaining legislative approval, meeting the requirements of state and local environmental and construction regulations, and securing additional contracts and approvals to deliver the new, state-of-the-art Daly Field Athletics Complex. Opening ceremonies will take place on September 9th and 10th.

The project replaces a derelict public space that lacked upkeep for over 20 years and was deemed unplayable for inter-scholastic competition by the state with state-of-the-art, environmentally sound, NCAA compliant soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, and softball fields and tennis courts--providing a home field for Simmons sports teams and for a Brighton High School football team that rosters student athletes from all across Boston and had no home field for more than 20 years. The facility will be open to anyone in the community to use during 75 percent of playable hours, with the rest of the time reserved for Simmons College, Brighton High, and the local little league.

Our investment of $13.5 million in this project was a sizable one for a relatively small school like ours with a modest endowment and capital budget. How and why did we decide to go forward with the project? We relied on our long-established core values.

Core value #1 - We are at our best when students are first. The investments academic institutions make are often attributed to improving the student experience. The Daly Field project not only provided our outdoor athletics teams with the first home field in the College’s 115-year history, but it also afforded the opportunity for our student athletes to serve as mentors and role models to high school aged young women from an underserved population--an invaluable learning and enrichment opportunity that we know can change lives.

Core value #2 - We prepare students for life’s work. Studies have shown that young women who play sports are more likely to graduate from college, find a job, and be employed in male-dominated industries. Additional research shows that among senior women business executives, 94 percent played sports and more than half played at a university level. We realized that an investment in our athletics program is central to our College’s mission and core value #2: to ready our students for successful careers.

Core value #3 - We cross boundaries to create opportunities. As a small, women’s private college, we engaged what might be viewed as unlikely partners to ensure the project’s success. We worked closely with an inner-city public high school, neighborhood organizations like the Brighton Board of Trade, state and local politicians, a community little league, and many more to see this project through. We reached beyond our traditional partnerships to establish solid new relationships with a variety of community stakeholders, and Simmons College is stronger as a result.

Core value #4 - We make a collective investment in community. Knowing that the general public, high school athletes, and little leaguers would be joining our athletes in playing on these fields, we made significant safety and lasting environmental choices. We eschewed crumb rubber, which has been linked to incidents of cancer, and are making Daly Field the first publicly accessible field in New England with all natural coconut shells and cork as the infill on the synthetic turf. We remediated arsenic in the soil and removed asbestos pipes, and we installed a filtration system for the runoff into the Charles River. We also installed a Brock pad underlayment system beneath the turf, which is estimated to reduce the occurrence and impact of concussions by as much as 50 percent. We proudly made these investments because our college cares deeply about the health and well being of the current and future members of our community.

As President of Simmons College, I am well aware of the budget strains under which American colleges and universities are operating. As college administrators contemplate future investments, I encourage them to rely on what their institution stands for as the basis for their decision-making. If universities stay true to their mission and values, these seemingly complex investment decisions can become simpler.