Monday, October 15, 2012

Ads on Campus

Should colleges use on-campus advertising as a revenue source?

The question came up this weekend when I noted on Twitter how spoiled I've become by watching tv almost exclusively on the DVR.  Sunday night I caught part of the Cardinals-Giants game, and couldn't help but notice how many ads there were.  An alert reader tweeted back that some colleges are doing the same thing on campus, selling ad space everywhere from the sides of campus buses to the walls of student centers.  

It's easy to retreat to either extreme, but I wouldn't recommend it.  The purist position that colleges should be havens from commercialism is hard to sustain when many of the buildings are named after donors.  (At many private colleges, the entire institution is named after a donor.  Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Stanford weren't known for their scholarly contributions.)  Naming rights are major sources of capital funding.  Similarly, many scholarships and -- in some settings -- endowed chairs are named after donors whose money may not have derived from the life of the mind.

The purist position also bears an uneasy relationship with freedom of speech.  It's easy to overstate the "money is speech" position that the Supreme Court seems to endorse, but it's also true that advertising is, among other things, directed information.  If a campus tries banning a certain class of information, the precedent could lead to places we don't want to go.  Besides, to the extent that students need to be prepared for the real world, learning to navigate commerical information strikes me as part of the deal.

The profit motive is hardly absent from campus anyway.  Food and bookstore services are typically run on a for-profit basis, and colleges have long profited by licensing names for sweatshirts, mugs, and the various paraphernalia found in college bookstores.

But I'm still uneasy with going from an acknowledgement of commercial speech to embracing it as salvation.

To the extent that a college derives benefits from its non-profit status -- property tax exemptions, say, and the ability to accept donations -- I can't help but think there's a public trust to uphold.  (Public institutions take that a step farther, adding direct subsidies to the equation.)  For a college to have an official soft drink, say, strikes me as exploiting its public trust.  Depending on how far the endorsement or identification goes, there's a real risk of diluting the college's brand.

I'd also worry about influence.  This is a chronic concern with named chairs, for example: would the Donald Trump Chair of Economics really be free to publish on the details of corruption among real estate developers?  

Finally, I'd worry about stability.  Market fortunes ebb and flow much more quickly than academic needs do.  If the endorsement money goes to capital, or is basically ancillary, then that doesn't matter much.  But if it starts to fund operations, then the college is even more exposed to market swings than it already is.  

I've heard of major endorsement deals at major universities, but not at community colleges.  Wise and worldly readers, have you seen (or heard of) major commericalization deals in the community college sector?  If so, are there any lessons learned for the rest of us?