At Mississippi State U., Athletics Chips In for Faculty Bonuses

September 30, 2010

For four straight years, faculty members at Mississippi State University have gone without merit pay raises. This year, for some, a financial boost came from an unlikely source: the athletics department.

Last week, 406 faculty members—nearly a third of the university's full-time teachers—received bonuses of $2,500 each. The awards were backed by $750,000 from the Bulldogs' annual share of the Southeastern Conference's lucrative TV deal.

In all, thanks to matching funds provided by donors, roughly $2-million has been set aside, with half for the faculty bonuses and half for student scholarships.

Mark E. Keenum, the university's president, said he dreamed up the partnership shortly after taking office at the institution last year. Like most public universities, Mississippi State has seen its state support plummet in recent years. The athletics department, meantime, receives about $5-million annually from the SEC's media-rights deal with ESPN, which provides the league with $2.25-billion over 15 years.

"This arrangement we have with ESPN is bringing significantly more resources to our athletics department," Mr. Keenum said in an interview Thursday. "I felt like there needed to be some of that to come back and support the campus—to support our students, through scholarships, and our faculty."

The program is part of a four-year, $100-million fund-raising campaign, StatePride, intended to raise money for endowed scholarships and professorships. (So far, the university has raised $44-million toward that goal.) Mr. Keenum said the partnership with athletics was distinctive because of its emphasis on "spendable" dollars rather than endowments.

The recipients of the awards were selected based on recommendations from leaders of the university's eight colleges and its library system. (Adjunct professors, along with faculty members who hold department-chair positions or higher, were not eligible.) The university plans to give another round of bonuses next year.

Scott Stricklin, Mississippi State's athletic director, said the partnership could continue beyond 2011.

"It's hard to speculate where it might go," Mr. Stricklin said in an interview. "But I would like to think that athletics is always going to be able to support our own operation and do so in a way that allows us to give something back." (The Bulldogs receive $4-million annually in institutional support from student tuition.)

It's not unusual for major athletics programs to give a portion of their revenues to academics: This year, for instance, the University of Georgia's athletics program donated $2-million to support professorships and scholarships. Mississippi State's athletics budget, at $37-million, is roughly half that of Georgia's—and is the smallest in the Southeastern Conference.