December 6, 2019

To grow and excel or to switch to survival mode?

By Paul Truong

In this very difficult economy, this is a critical strategical question that all businesses must ask themselves. It’s a challenging chess move which business owners, chief executive officers, as well as university presidents and provosts must make.

Let’s say you own a restaurant with great food and service. But business is slow. Do you spend money to advertise, or do nothing and hope for the best? The right business decisions propel companies to the top, while the wrong ones put companies out of business.

The same goes with higher learning institutions. There are countless good universities, and they’re going after a similar pool of students. In order to have an advantage, universities have to promote to be known locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. This is expensive. And even if they do, there’s no guarantee that the right audience will see it.

Some universities choose to spend millions to advertise. Some choose to do it through athletics (football, basketball, baseball, etc.). There’s no one-size-fits-all formula. Every university is different. Each has different needs. Even after these universities succeed in getting their names out, they still have to make a compelling case for the students and their parents to choose them.

These are difficult chess moves which presidents, provosts and marketing departments must navigate through. Standing pat and doing nothing will surely lead to failure.

Why chess? And why was this a brilliant move by President Elizabeth Stroble and Provost Julian Schuster?

A top-ranked chess program costs a fraction of a nationally ranked football or basketball program. But the benefits can be much greater in many ways.

Here is why:

Outside of soccer (FIFA has more than 200 member nations), chess is the second most popular sport in the world (FIDE, the world chess federation, has more than 175 member nations). According to the latest statistic, there are more than 700 million players worldwide, and 45 million in the United States alone. About half of this number is K-12 children and adolescents.

Chess is a global game and Webster University is a global university. When the chess team succeeds on the biggest stage, it will not only promote and boost the image of the Webster Groves campus, but all of the campuses across the United States and around the world.

Chess has been scientifically proven to help young people do better in school. This is why chess is a part of the school curriculum in more than 40 countries. And statistically speaking, students who play chess collectively have higher grade-point averages. Many universities offer chess scholarships and create chess programs. They want to dip into this big pool of top-notch students.

FYI: The average GPA of the Webster Final Four Championship team is around 3.6, and they’re all full-time students.

A recent national scholastic event in Nashville, Tenn., drew 5,335 K-12 players, plus around 15,000 parents, coaches and siblings. Countless scouts and university recruiters were there for the same reason. Chess is the best kept secret for universities. It’s inexpensive and brings great results.

Some other universities provide a lot more chess scholarships than Webster. But they didn’t have the same success. Many professional football, basketball and baseball teams spend big money but don’t win championships. The New York Yankees, New York Knicks and Dallas Cowboys are just a few glaring examples.

Lindenwood University created their chess program at the same time as Webster. They offer a lot more scholarships. But they didn’t make the Final Four. They also didn’t get the same national and international coverage. The chess scholarship budget of the University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas) and some other universities are bigger than Webster University. But that didn’t yield the same success.

Therefore, it’s very clear that Webster didn’t buy a championship. They simply did a better job in scouting for the right personnel. President Elizabeth Stroble and Provost Julian Schuster made a better decision than other universities to bring this world-class chess program to St. Louis. This is what it takes to checkmate the competition, not money.

Even with four freshmen, Webster is ranked as the No. 1 Division I team in the nation since its inception in August 2012, and won the Final Four eight months later, ahead of Yale University, Princeton University, Harvard University, Cornell University, Stanford University, University of Chicago, Washington University, Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), New York University, Texas Tech University, UT Dallas, University of Maryland in Baltimore, etc. This is unheard of in the history of sports.

This chess program last year generated national and international coverage of more than 500 newspapers, blogs, TV and radio stations to tens of millions of people. The list includes ESPN, Sports Illustrated, National Public Radio, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the New York Daily News, The Washington Post, etc. Webster University was featured this past week on the cover of The Washington Post and other media.

It’s the kind of publicity money can’t buy, and even if you could, it would cost millions each year. This will result in long-term benefits for Webster in reputation, enrollment, as well as potential donations and sponsorships. It’s a brilliant chess move by our administrators, which will surely benefit the university as a whole.

The competition is fierce. Every university is actively trying to get a bigger share of the best student pool. President Stroble and Provost Schuster have the long-term strategical vision to take Webster University to the next level.

In chess, great players will look at the entire board, from both sides, to make the correct assessment and come up with the right strategical plan. To judge a position without seeing the entire picture will lead to definite failure. It takes grandmaster moves to be ahead of the game. I believe that President Stroble and Provost Schuster have clearly made the winning moves.

Quick facts: In eight months, the Webster chess team has won six national, three state, 11 major titles and broken numerous records. It’s the strongest team in college chess history. To know more about this program, please visit websterchess.blogspot.com.

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