Butler University's Danko seeks lasting gains from hoops glory

November 30, 2013

Before he became Butler University’s 21st president in 2011, James M. Danko got a powerful lesson in just how high the school’s stock has risen. A couple of years ago, when he was first approached—along with roughly 50 other applicants—about taking the top job at the small (roughly 4,200 enrollment) private college, his knee-jerk response was, “Where’s Butler?”

What a difference a few months make. The final leg of the interview process took place the very weekend of the 2011 matchup between Butler and the University of Connecticut for the NCAA men’s basketball championship—the tiny school’s second bid for the national title in as many years.

focus-apb-jamesdanko02-15col.jpg Danko is trying to leverage Butler's basketball victories to help the university thrive in a time of wrenching change in higher education. (IBJ Photo/Aaron P. Bernstein)

To no surprise, the folks he interviewed with seemed far more interested in the game than in their notional new president.

“It was a very interesting time to go through that, because you’re thinking, ‘This is a national university I’m talking to,’” Danko said. “You’re thinking, ‘Man, if they take this all the way, there’s going to be other presidential candidates I have to compete with. This is a desirable place to be.’”

Indeed, Butler’s improbable 2010 and 2011 championship runs changed a lot of minds about the school—and pretty much set the agenda for Danko’s still-young administration.

These days, job one is finding ways to wring lasting gains from all that national exposure. By pumping up academic offerings; making brick-and-mortar campus upgrades; and perhaps most important, leveraging the school’s hoops success by gaining entry to the high-profile Big East conference.

All while weathering the recent loss of the school’s biggest fundraising tool (and basketball coach), Brad Stevens, to the Boston Celtics.

“The challenge for us and the opportunity for us is how we continue to leverage that past success,” Danko said. “My challenge and my responsibility is to keep the momentum going.”

The assignment seems like a less-than-ideal fit for a man who founded his own medical equipment company at age 19 and spent the first two decades of his professional life as an entrepreneur. After cashing out in 1990, he took leadership roles at Dartmouth College, the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

His last pre-Butler gig was as dean of the Villanova School of Business, where he helped develop a nationally ranked undergraduate business program.

Danko thinks of himself as a “brand builder,” which might be exactly what Butler needs right now. However, burnishing the reputation of, say, a private company, is a far different matter than trying to helm a university. Forget about being “nimble”; academia is all about building consensus. And consensus doesn’t happen overnight.

“In private industry, you can make quick decisions and implement them,” Danko said. “You’re much more empowered. This is the opposite. Decisions are very collaborative. You can’t just wake up one day and pursue a strategy.”

He’s spent a large portion of his Butler tenure honing his cat-herding skills by meeting with faculty, alumni and other interested parties. All to gain some traction on issues he’d like to see tackled soon—both to take advantage of the still-warm afterglow of the university’s hoops glory, and to address fast-developing challenges that simply didn’t exist a few years back. For instance, something has to be done about online universities, which are taking an ever-larger slice of the educational pie from old-school schools.

“These could be game-changers,” Danko said. “So we might not have 10 years to decide that we might eventually want to get into online education. That need to move faster is definitely there.”

More brick and mortar

Butler isn’t exactly rushing into this new educational arena, but it’s walking at a fairly brisk pace. Last summer, the university offered 26 fully or partially online courses, up from zero a couple of years ago. Next year, that will increase to around 50.

Not that the school considers online forays to be its sole, or even primary, path to a bright future. Danko thinks the school will continue to focus on the 18- to 23-year-old market, and to emphasize traditional residential living.

In the coming years, Butler plans to beautify the campus and add a new science and a new business building, along with a couple of residence halls. Danko believes today’s sheltered tweens can do with a few years of semiautonomous campus life—which Butler is happy to offer.

“This market, more than ever, needs the experience that you get at a residential-based university,” he said. “Students are in the classroom only 15 to 18 percent of the time. Their other education happens in the socialization aspect, the non-curricular things they’re doing.”

Attracting those warm bodies hasn’t been a problem lately. Butler’s NCAA runs caused applications to spike 43 percent, and they are still holding close to that level. Danko’s first fall at Butler was also the first year the school boasted an incoming class in which more than half (53 percent) were from someplace other than Indiana.

This year, 57 percent of incoming freshmen were from out of state, representing 36 states and 16 countries—momentum Danko describes as “sustainable.”

Tough to differentiate

The school’s star turn couldn’t have come at a better time, because demographics and economics are conspiring to put the squeeze on smallish, relatively anonymous private universities like Butler. Or rather, like the pre-hoops-glory Butler.

“They all kind of struggle,” said Jim Paskill, president of the Glenside, Pa.-based education enrollment marketing firm Paskill Stapleton & Lord. “If you take those championship runs out of the equation for Butler, what distinguishes them? What really makes them different? A lot of schools their size have a problem with that.”

In Paskill’s opinion, distinguishing oneself from the great gray mass of small-to-middling institutions has never been more vital. Most states will see decreasing populations of high school graduates over the next few years, while the Great Recession has depleted the finances of families with college-age kids. Factor in the competition from for-profit online schools and you’ve got lean times for the little guys.

“It’s a perfect storm,” Paskill said.

For pretty much everyone except Butler, of course. The university’s hoops prowess was the fruit of a long-term plan to hitch the school’s wagon to its basketball squad. Butler made numerous NCAA tournament appearances during the early 2000s, but no one—no one in their right mind, at least—could have predicted they’d reach the championship game two years in a row. It was a bolt from the blue. A bolt made out of publicity.

“Very rarely does an event come along that changes a school’s reputation and public perception almost overnight,” Paskill said. “I can’t recall that ever happening to a school of their size.”

Staying the sports course

The trick is cementing those gains. Which is where Danko’s most audacious plan comes in. Under his administration, Butler ceased terrorizing the small-time Horizon League and moved to the Atlantic 10 Conference. And this season the Bulldogs jump to the Big East.

It’s more than a different conference; it’s a different world. Butler will play against storied programs such as Villanova, Georgetown and Seton Hall, and they’ll do so in front of the East Coast media.

“We’re going to go after that East Coast recognition and Northeast corridor recognition,” Danko said. “That’s where the media is, and that’s where the students are. We’re collaborating with a tier of schools that really raises the stature and the benchmark of a place like Butler.”

The real gains are in big-market exposure, vastly increasing Butler’s recruiting footprint, and vaulting it—in the most literal sense—into the same league as such household names as Villanova, Georgetown and Seton Hall.

And then there’s the cash. Butler gets $2.5 million annually from the Big East (as opposed to just $400,000 annually from the Atlantic 10.) Madison Square Garden will host the league’s post-season tournament, and Fox Sports 1 offered the Big East a 12-year broadcast deal worth $500 million.

It’s a pretty sweet way to lock in some of the name recognition the school’s enjoyed lately, because the Big East is full of smallish schools (Xavier has 6,500 students, Seton Hall just shy of 10,000) that punch above their weight when it comes to national stature.

But what if the Bulldogs stink up the place? What if the squad becomes the Big East’s doormat? The danger of a bunch of toothless Bulldogs became a lot more real July 3 when coach Brad Stevens, architect of the team’s NCAA near-championships, departed for the Celtics. Only time will tell how much damage that will do.

Sports attorney Milt Thompson said there’s a chance the team could be overwhelmed at first by the new competition, but he thinks it will be only a hiccup. The school will have new program-building tools at its disposal, thanks to a big budget bump from additional Big East revenue (plus increased Hinkle ticket prices) that can be plowed into recruiting, scouting and promotion.

“They’re gaining probably 20 to 30 percent in resources,” Thompson said. “They’re stepping up their game, and they’ll have the resources to do that.”

He figures Butler can be competitive even without Stevens at the helm.

And Danko, who’d watched other schools sniff around his star employee ever since his presidential tenure began, says that while losing the coach was bad, it could have been much, much worse. Especially if he’d gone to another university, donned unfamiliar school colors, and made a point of distancing himself from his former employer.

Instead, he’s in the NBA, which might as well be in a different universe. Danko said he’s “still ours,” and will still proudly wear his Butler gear. And, more to the point, make himself available for fundraising and put in a good word here and there about the school. He’s still part of Butler’s bigger, brighter, more secure future.

“He’s still on our team,” Danko said. “He just draws his paycheck elsewhere.”•


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