Most of JMI Sports' new multimedia contract with the University of Kentucky is tied to athletics, but another potentially big piece involves the sale of "campus rights."
What exactly it means to sell the rights to campus remains nebulous, even though that portion of UK's contract with JMI Sports starts July 1.
"Campus rights" could include finding corporate sponsors for signs that indicate where things are on campus. It could include, as one UK administrator said Monday, "access to students" or bringing in speakers from corporate partners. In contract documents, UK said it would be open to advertising opportunities within its residence halls.
"This is kind of a new thing that a lot of universities are starting to get into," said Bill Harris, UK's director of purchasing. "It's our plan to be very cautious on how we proceed on this — we want to be thoughtful. We just thought an athletics sponsor might want to expand to the whole university."
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Under the agreement, JMI Sports would get 30 percent and UK would get 70 percent of any campus-rights deal. Any revenue would be above and beyond the $210 million guaranteed under the JMI Sports contract, and it would go to the academic side of campus.
Although selling campus rights is a relatively new concept, there have been a handful of high-profile examples in recent years.
At Ohio State University, Huntington Bank paid $125 million last year to be the exclusive provider of bank branches and ATMs on campus, and to be designated the "official consumer bank" of OSU, according to news reports.
In 2012, Arizona State University signed an agreement with MidFirst Bank for an athletics sponsorship that included setting up dozens of MidFirst ATMs on campus.
Late last year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said it would ask financial institutions to make their deals with higher education partners more transparent.
The University of Louisville has a deal with Office Max for about $350,000 a year, split between athletics and academics. In return, Office Max is the official office supplier to U of L.
Eric Monday, UK's executive vice president for administration, said Monday that many universities were looking to form more partnerships with the private sector, partly to make up for decreases in state funding.
In UK's case, that could be taking an athletics sponsorship deal and enlarging it across campus. Another example, he said, would be new signs around campus. Those could be paid for by a private company, which would get advertising on the signs.
UK already has outsourced much of its housing and dining services to private companies.
Not everyone thinks this is a good direction for higher education.
Alex Molnar of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado said campus-rights agreements raise concerns about academic independence.
"Self-interested money is going to deflect the historical independent nature of inquiry and teaching in higher education, so it's about to become much harder to criticize the sponsors of the University of Kentucky," Molnar said. "These agreements are corrosive to academic freedom."
Also, Molnar said, "the question is whether or not a so-called public entity has the right to sell its students to a for-profit provider," such as a bank, in the same way that Facebook makes money from tracking the browsing habits of its members.
But Monday said UK's approach would be more "holistic," with JMI Sports at the helm.
"This is about more than money," he said, describing possible internships or executives from different companies speaking to students. "If there's an opportunity to generate some funds, that's great."