From Baseball to Higher Ed
In February, Michael Crowley joined Santa Clara University’s executive team as Vice President of Finance and Administration. With a background in professional sports administration, he brings an impressive portfolio of leadership, strategy, and operations to the position. Recently, Crowley sat down to talk about his new role at SCU, his goals, and what he’s learned during his career.
You were raised in the Bay Area. What was your awareness of Santa Clara University?
MC: Growing up, I used to play high school basketball at the old Toso Pavilion (now Leavey Center). The father of one of my high school teammates worked in the athletic department. He would come here on Saturdays to work, and we would shoot around in the gym upstairs and play pickup basketball games. I also worked closely with Santa Clara University when I brought the San Jose Earthquakes to play their home games at Buck Shaw, beginning in 2008 and ending with the 2014 season—a continuous run of seven years. Subsequently, I sat on the Institute of Sports, Law and Ethics Board, and the President’s Intercollegiate Athletics Commission.
You spent more than two decades working with sports organizations like the Oakland A’s, where you had the longest tenure of any president in that organization’s history. On the surface, your move to university leadership seems like quite a shift. What drew you to this role?
MC: I have a passion for both sports and education. In my role, I don’t look at the business model as much different. In both roles, you still need to be good at what you do in your areas of responsibility. You need to be strategic. I have a different product here at Santa Clara, and must learn the nuances of academia, but the basic business principles are the same.
Aside from providing leadership for the administration and finance units, you will be a key player in the university’s upcoming comprehensive campaign and construction projects. Can you describe what that might look like?
MC: There are a lot of significant capital building projects underway. It is important to get them built on time and on, or under budget. This is even more critical for Finn Residence Hall. We have a hard deadline to prepare for the September 2019 student move-in. Some of the other projects that are being considered will need to have funds raised or financed. We will want to make sure those are built within the budgeted cost and timeframe, and that we are able to operate the buildings efficiently. People often forget that once the building is operational, many things still need to happen. There are ongoing costs to operate the building and the University must set aside sufficient funds to maintain the buildings to their current level.
What challenges do you anticipate ahead?
MC: There are many needs on campus. The challenge is getting the resources, setting priorities, and then allocating them to the initiatives. There are significant factors that are facing all who operate in Silicon Valley. The University is not immune to the high cost of housing, traffic, staffing, and continued competition for the best and brightest students. These are just some of the challenges that we will continue to face in the years ahead. We have to figure out how to address these challenges, and will need to make them a priority and then get creative.
You will also be overseeing the University’s $470 million operating budget and its $925 million endowment. How will you help ensure that the University continues to maintain financial stability, particularly as the cost of living and doing business in the Bay Area rises?
MC: We have to look at ways of becoming more efficient with our current funding levels by prioritizing spending. At the same time, we need to grow revenue while being mindful of the cost of private education. This will be the challenge moving forward.
In many ways, you are the quintessential product of a Catholic education. Can you reflect on that a little bit?
MC: I got a really good education and am so fortunate that I had the privilege to attend catholic schools—Saint Simon School in Los Altos, Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, and the University of Notre Dame. These institutions provided me a solid foundation academically, spiritually, and socially from which to grow and develop. They take pride in educating the “whole person.” As a result, giving back and recognizing the needs of others who are less fortunate was instilled in me at an early age and reinforced throughout my educational journey. I also think the discipline of Catholic schools was probably a good thing for me as well.
You’ve previously been involved with SCU through the President’s Intercollegiate Athletics Commission and the former Institute of Sports Law and Ethics. Your wife is also an alumna. Did these connections to the university play into your decision to accept this leadership role?
MC: I believe we all have to feel good about where we work. I knew several of the people on campus through previous interactions and liked them and how they conducted their business. In addition, Santa Clara’s mission—the values of the University—align with mine. My wife graduated in 1985, and as a result, we have a lot of close friends in the Santa Clara community. So, yes, I had a good idea and wanted to be part of Santa Clara University’s continued success.
A lot has changed with analytics since the Moneyball era. Do you find that people are still resistant to using analytics that challenge traditional methods?
MC: Less so, for sure as the book by Michael Lewis got people looking at the use of analytics differently. First of all, you saw it in sports, and now it has become more prevalent in all aspects of business. Today, analytics are considered a key driver for decision making. We (the Oakland A’s) got a lot of acclaim for using analytics to evaluate players. But, we combined this with traditional measures—we still used a network of scouts and went out and watched players in person.
We were looking for ways to be more efficient and develop a competitive advantage in the search for talent. We were the first in the·game to make analytics a key tool in our decision making. This required the entire senior executive team to embrace a culture of change and be willing to try new things. A lot of times, people will say, “Why do we do it this way?” And the answer is: “Well, we’ve always done it that way.” And you know what? That may not be the best way, but nobody questions it. So, you must change that culture. Individuals have to be comfortable questioning the process and not be afraid of failure. In a risk adverse environment, creativity is limited. I hope to foster this environment in my organization here at Santa Clara.
How do you see analytics—which can often involve big-picture ideas—affecting the day-to-day work of an employee?
MC: Through data and measurement, you can transform the process, measure the impact on the business, and increase accountability. Much of it is identifying areas for improvement. Often, we are so focused on the task at hand, we don’t evaluate why we are doing it, or if there’s a better way to improve the efficiency of the process.
What athlete or coach have you met over the years that you felt you had the most in common with in terms of professional approach or work ethic? Or perhaps you’ve tried to emulate?
MC: I have worked and played for some terrific individuals but I am not sure there is any one specific person. I have always looked at people I work with or for and try to take bits and pieces to form my own style. No boss is perfect, but they all do some things really well or they wouldn’t be successful. I have been very fortunate to be around some very impressive people, so I try to take the attributes that I believe are their strengths and have made them good leaders and emulate and integrate them into my own leadership style.
What would you consider the most exciting sports scenario? A tied game, bottom of the ninth in baseball, shootout in soccer? What really just gets your adrenaline going as a fan?
MC: I would say the baseball scenario. I don’t care for penalty kicks in soccer. You’ve just completed 90 minutes plus two overtime periods of soccer and then the outcome is determined by a random shootout. But in baseball, especially if you’re talking about post-season, your adrenaline is going like crazy in the ninth inning as your closer attempts to get that final out.
What advice would you give to a student during this very formative part of their lives?
MC: Follow your passion. Try something you would not normally do. Try student government. If you’re an athlete, try theater or an interesting club. It is important to try lots of things. Keep your eyes open because there may be something that you find exciting that you never expected. Typically, if you like what you do, you’re going to be more successful at it.
What will people notice that’s different about Santa Clara in a year after you’ve been here a year? What kind of stamp do you hope to put on the University?
MC: I certainly hope to continue on sound financial footing. The finance group looks forward to being able to support the initiatives that Fr. Engh and the Board of Trustees want to pursue. I’m also hoping that many of these construction projects will be completed, under way, or near ground-breaking.
You have only been on campus for a short time. Have you discovered a favorite place on the grounds?
MC: It’s a beautiful campus to just walk around. The Mission is very special to me; it’s where I got married. I remember when the Alameda ran through the center of campus. The transformation of the campus as a whole is incredible.
Any parting thoughts you’d like to share?
MC: We are members of the greater Santa Clara community and universally, we want to be good neighbors. Sometimes there will be an occasional hiccup, but our intent is to flourish together and to make this a great community, whether it’s on campus or in the extended community. We’ve got a lot of things happening on campus, and I hope those in the neighborhood will take advantage of all Santa Clara has to offer, whether it is Mass at the Mission, athletic events, arts, music, or lectures.